China Cleans Up Its Game

Chinese authorities are determined to make the 2008 Olympics drug free
 
<p>It\'s an image that has sullied China\'s sporting reputation to this day: women\'s freestyle sprint gold medallist Le Jingyi climbing out of the pool at the 1994 World Swimming Championships in Rome and revealing a back Arnold Schwarzenegger would have been proud of. The female swimmer\'s massive build seemed to explain exactly how Chinese competitors had picked up an improbable 12 of the 16 women\'s gold medals at that meet.</p><p>While none of China\'s \"Incredible Hulks\" tested positive at that event, it was widely assumed that the country\'s totalitarian government had taken up its sporting ideology where the East Germans had left off. At the 1993 World Short Course Swimming Championships in Majorca, Spain, rival teams could not believe their eyes when Le Jingyi, who\'d won the women\'s 100-metre freestyle, was substituted on the gold medal podium with another swimmer who didn\'t even look like her, arousing suspicion she did so to avoid a compulsory urine test. At the same meet, Chinese swimmers were seen clambering over walls, apparently to elude drug testing officials. Ian Hanson, the media director for the Australian Swimming Team, was there to witness it: \"The pandemonium it caused, with FINA [swimming\'s international ruling body] officials chasing the Chinese swimmers around the corridors, was extraordinary.\"</p><p>But what isn\'t widely known is that China has since quietly but doggedly proceeded to clean up its act, implementing stringent measures to prevent drug cheats from embarrassing the country and jeopardising the success of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. It turns out the Chinese didn\'t have much choice: as drug testing technology has improved, it has become increasingly difficult for athletes and their suppliers to cheat (see box on page 44). At the same time, government authorities realised they had a serious public-relations problem. To help fix it, they enlisted the expertise of a country that leads the world in its determination to pursue drug cheats: Australia.</p><p>The real wake-up call came late in 1994 after a lightning raid before the Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan, busted seven Chinese swimmers before they\'d had time to administer masking agents. Reportedly, a March 1995 investigative commission from FINA accidentally found that seven positive tests for Chinese swimmers had already been directly reported to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which had kept them secret. Inside Sport magazine reported the uncensored record revealed a total of 19 positive tests had been returned on Chinese swimmers alone between April 1990 and October 1994, all but one showing a muscle-building steroid.</p><p>A second epidemic of cheating appeared to break out at the 1997 Chinese National Games in Shanghai, when previously unknown competitors in women\'s weight-lifting, track and field, and swimming produced the most remarkable two weeks of achievements in sporting history. Most notorious were \"Ma\'s Army,\" a pack of female runners who made a mockery of the 5000-metre event, with three of them topping existing world records. Four years earlier, coach Ma Junren\'s athletes had broken world records in the women\'s 1500, 3000 and 10,000 metres. Herbal concoctions, including caterpillar fungus and soup made from turtle blood, were offered up to explain such wondrous feats.</p><p>The Chinese loathed the widespread derision that greeted these supposed triumphs. They tried to convince the world that these offences were the work of rogue coaches and athletes, especially in outlying provinces, and that the central authorities were doing all they could to thwart evil-doers. But most observers were sceptical. That perception hasn\'t really changed to this day. And if there are any Chinese testing positive in the future it would come as no surprise to see those pictures of Le Jingyi\'s back getting yet another airing in the media.</p><p>But that is unlikely. According to John Mendoza, the recently departed head of the Australian Sports Drug Agency (ASDA) - Australia\'s watchdog over all issues to do with drugs - China\'s anti-doping posture, and its effectiveness, has changed dramatically over the past ten years. Back in 1987, ASDA appointed as its first CEO Steve Haynes, a crusading anti-doping zealot, who reckoned it would be better for Australia to engage with China rather than to isolate it. A common perception was that the IOC would never voluntarily take a hard line over China when it represented such a lucrative new market for the Olympic coffers.</p><p>Mendoza says that during those early informal Australia-China exchanges, the hardest part was figuring out who to deal with. No other country had any involvement with Chinese sporting bodies at that time, so diplomacy was crucial. \"Understanding its culture and value system, and developing meaningful relationships based on trust was difficult,\" says Haynes. And although there were deep suspicions of a systematic state-sponsored doping programme, Haynes could not find any evidence that it was the case.</p><p>What ASDA did find was a funding system that massively rewarded success at the provincial level, creating huge incentives for individual swimmers and coaches to cheat. Competition between provinces was intense; impoverished athletes who did well could transform their lifestyles overnight. Local officials turned a blind eye, and ignorance was the norm.</p><p>But there was a great willingness on the part of the central government to address the problem, says Mendoza. It was hamstrung, though, by the fact that Chinese provinces really were a law unto themselves. Rhetoric from Beijing often had nothing to do with what was going on in far-flung areas.</p><p>Steve Haynes pressed on, developing a formal bilateral anti-doping agreement, which Australian and Chinese authorities signed in December 1994. It was the first agreement of its kind, and it took all the authority for anti-doping programmes out of provincial hands and dropped it in the lap of the Chinese Olympic Committee.</p><p>Haynes was determined to get China up to international standards by sharing ASDA\'s staff and expertise. But the initiative went against the grain of world opinion, as few believed China was serious - including some of Australia\'s own sporting authorities. The swimming and coaching associations in Australia proposed a blanket suspension of Chinese swimmers in November 1994, with venerable coach Forbes Carlile leading the charge. The World Swimming Coaches Association weighed in with the same resolution almost a year later. You couldn\'t blame them, given the weight of evidence, but the bodies didn\'t understand the aggravating circumstances in China.</p><p>One eminent coach who did was John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, who decided independently to travel to Hong Kong in October 1995 to see for himself. Getting information was \"remarkably easy,\" he said later. Leonard contacted Chinese coaches working on the mainland and in other countries, former Chinese swimmers, sports administrators, business figures, police, pharmacists and medical personnel. His conclusion was that the drug problem in China was \"all but uncontrollable,\" largely because of the provincial rewards system.</p><p>Local mayors could earn better postings if their teams swam well, so they provided money directly to coaches who might then buy performance-enhancing drugs. Low-level coaches earned $50 to $100 per month, while those with a national-level athlete would pull in $300 per month. Back then the average Chinese person earned $75 a year, while a single good performance at the National Games could be worth $500 to a coach and athlete. Enterprising doctors could also enhance their earnings. Doping was a nationwide cottage industry.</p><p>Leonard asserted that Chinese leaders were most likely telling the truth when they said they were working as hard as they could to end the problem. But the money trail, he explained, didn\'t involve the Chinese swimming authorities. \"It goes back to local government and local political leaders who control the flow of cash.\"</p><p>ASDA concentrated its joint efforts with the Chinese at the local level. Between 1994 and 1998, one month per year involved either the Chinese being in Australia or ASDA employees working in China - setting up doping control stations, improving security, training staff, witnessing sampling procedures and ensuring the most up-to-date equipment was used. \"We got a lot of help from Australia before the Sydney Games in 2000,\" says Zhao Jian, spokesperson for the Chinese Olympic Committee Anti-Doping Commission. \"We exchanged ideas on doping-control management and education, and had good cooperation.\"</p><p>Mendoza thinks the Chinese were very open to ideas. \"But drug usage was so widespread,\" he says, \"it took them about five years, beginning from 1994, to put in place the systems needed.\" By 1999 the impact of their efforts was clearly coming through, as evidenced by their conspicuous lack of success in \"power\" events - especially swimming.</p><p>There had been several setbacks, though. The most embarrassing was the debacle at the World Swimming Championships in Perth in 1998, when a Chinese swimmer was intercepted at Sydney airport carrying 13 vials of human growth hormone (hGH), and four others tested positive to banned steroid masking agents. \"The hGH group was from Guangzhou, and the masking positives were from a Shanghai group,\" says Mendoza, underscoring the provincial issue. \"The Chinese government was so shocked it enforced sanctions that were unprecedented in the world. They\'d already put an end to the massive financial incentives to cheat, but now they were freezing the earnings of athletes and coaches until they retired clean, and giving them only a small allowance. It would have been a restraint of trade in any democracy.\"</p><p>The same applied when \"Ma\'s Army\" was routed after a series of suspicious blood tests indicated possible use of EPO, a hormone that increases oxygen-carrying capacity in the blood. The Chinese Olympic Committee banned all Ma\'s runners from the Sydney 2000 Olympics - even though there was no conclusive proof of cheating. And while there were fears there might be another doping episode at the Sydney Games, China didn\'t win a single gold medal in swimming.</p><p>Yet they still finished third on the gold medal table with 28 in total. How? By focusing on their traditional strengths where grace, finesse and discipline took precedence over sheer power: diving (five gold medals), badminton (four gold), table tennis (four), gymnastics (three), shooting (three), judo (two) and taekwondo (one).</p><p>Four years later in Athens, where they crept up to second position with a gold medal tally of 32, it was a similar story: just two athletics golds, one in swimming, and a repetition of their dominance in diving (six gold), shooting (four), badminton (three) and the martial arts (three). The one exception to this pattern was the strong presence of the Chinese in the new sport of women\'s weightlifting: four gold in Sydney and three in Athens.</p><p>No-one doubts weightlifting is a problem sport when it comes to doping, but the Chinese have been especially vigilant about testing lifters. Of the 26 \"reportable offences\" in drug testing before, during and after the Athens Games last year, 12 involved weightlifting. But most importantly - and this is not widely recognised by the public - not one of the 26 drug cases involved a Chinese athlete. They were, as far as anyone is capable of telling, the cleanest team at the Athens Games.</p><p>With China\'s domestic anti-doping programme snowballing up to 5000 tests per year, they don\'t need any further help from Australia with their own athletes. But ASDA is in the process of cranking up its reciprocal visit schedule to provide the Chinese with all its experience in setting up the testing programme for the 2008 Olympics. There\'s no formal contract, but Australians are prepared to send hands-on staff to China to help organise and implement the biggest drug-testing operation ever undertaken at an Olympics - 4500 tests, over 1000 more than were conducted in Athens and in Sydney.</p><p>Clearly the Chinese are gearing up for the upcoming challenge with the remorseless intensity you\'d expect of its authoritarian government. They are well aware that, more than the medal tally itself, the anti-doping effort is the issue on which Beijing\'s Games, and the integrity of China, will ultimately be judged. \"Our aim for 2008 is to have very successful and even cleaner games,\" says Zhao Jian. \"It is important for us to let the world know what we have done and what we are doing now.\"</p><p>If their athletes do come through clean - and, as is likely, atop the medal table - the world at large will have good reason to finally put aside its ingrained scepticism of China\'s track record, and give them their due.</p><hr><p><strong>New Drugs, New Tests</strong></p><p>Drug testing did not get serious until the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in late 1999. Until then, it was suspected that sports associations that didn\'t really want to catch their own cheats could always avoid it. WADA orchestrated a worldwide out-of-competition testing programme and standardised every aspect of the business in 2003 with the World Anti-Doping Code (China was one of the first signatories). Still, new advances in hard-to-detect drugs could allow cheats to slip through WADA\'s net. But today the drug testers are just as quick to develop foolproof tests.</p><p>Here\'s how the doping cat-and-mouse game shapes up now, drug by drug:</p><p><b>Stimulants</b> Immediately increase alertness. Easily detected in urine.</p><p><b>Muscle-building steroids</b> Easily detected in urine, but can be stopped weeks before an event and still be effective, meaning out-of-competition testing remains crucial. Currently used only by those poorer athletes who don\'t have access to (previously undetectable) EPO or hGH.</p><p><b>Beta-blockers</b> Slow heart rate and reduce tremor. Easily detected in urine.</p><p>Erythropoietin (EPO) Raises oxygen-carrying capacity of blood. Undetectable until a combined urine/ blood test was introduced at the Sydney Olympics, but the \"window\" for a legally binding bust was then only 72 hours. No-one was stupid enough to get caught. Now that window has widened enormously, and testers aren\'t disclosing by how much.</p><p><b>Human Growth Hormone (hGH)</b> Until Athens, the muscle-building drug of choice in the western world. Blood tests were carried out for the first time at Athens, with no warning of the effective \"window.\" As with EPO, effectiveness of the test is improving.</p><p><b>\"Designer\" steroids</b> Muscle-builders that have been chemically manipulated to avoid detection. Still a worry, as a huge pre-Athens scandal in the US involving a new steroid called THG showed. More than a dozen top-class athletes were busted on documentary rather than direct evidence. However, an Australian research team is using a WADA grant to experiment with the molecular structure of steroids. The aim is to get one step in front of designer drug cheats. \"This is a relatively easy window to close,\" says former ASDA CEO John Mendoza.</p><p><b>The clincher</b> Reformist International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge authorised freezing athletes\' samples in Athens for up to eight years while testing technologies are improved. How many athletes want to spend that long waiting for ill-gotten Olympic booty to rest safely under their pillows?</p><p>Pessimists say there is still some way to go. Insulin and insulin-like growth factor, proven performance enhancers, are still undetectable. Obviously some athletes are still willing to roll the doping dice, but options are now limited.</p>
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