In the world of international athletic competition, the medal-laden Chinese are fast becoming the East Germans of the 1990s. The difference: Though long suspected of enhancing the performance of its athletes with drugs, the East Germans never got busted as badly as China's athletes did last October.
On their way to the Asian Games in Hiroshima, seven Chinese swimmers, two canoeists, a hurdler, and a cyclist were tested and caught with an anabolic steroid in their urine. Aided by a sensitive new test, Japanese experts zeroed in on the Chinese swim team, whose record-shattering progress had left a lot of incredulity in its wake. (Last year, China's women swimmers won an amazing 12 of 16 gold medals at the world championships in Rome, after winning no golds in the 1986 Olympics.)
STRICT RULES? Beijing responded angrily--first denying that its athletes were on steroids and then, when evidence was incontrovertible, maintaining that there had been no official involvement. At the same time, Beijing sports authorities announced a so-called Three Stricts drug-enforcement program allegedly designed to keep its athletes clean. China's Foreign Affairs Ministry said the incidents of drug-taking by 11 of the country's star athletes represented only "an act by individuals." Speaking at an antidoping conference held earlier this year, Wu Shaozu, president of the Chinese Olympic Committee, stated the country's official policy: "We will not use drugs even if these are drugs that cannot be detected. We will not use drugs even if others use drugs, and we would rather not win medals than use drugs."
However, Forbes Carlile, spokesman for the Australian Coaches Assn., claims that "in the 1980s, China brought in East German coaches--the same guys who were using steroids in East Germany." The association wants China's swim team banned from international competition for four years. Carlile, who had gone to China in 1973 to help develop its swimming program, notes that dehydrotestosterone (DHT), a state-of-the-art anabolic steroid, can be used in amounts so small that they are almost impossible to detect. He says the Japanese developed a machine sensitive enough to spot it only three months before the games. "If they hadn't grabbed them at the airport and had waited another hour to test them, they wouldn't have found anything," Carlile says.
Carlile argues that since all the Chinese athletes were caught using DHT, an expensive and relatively new drug, they must have got it from official sources. "If they'd all been doing this on their own, they would have been using a variety of different drugs," he says. "And besides, I don't see how Chinese athletes could afford this stuff themselves."
The All-China Sports Federation slams Carlile's charge as "an entirely groundless and unreasonable allegation." It says the government spent several million dollars to set up its own doping-control laboratory in 1987.
But Wu Shaozu's statement is also challenged by alumni of some of China's own government-run sports institutes, where gifted youngsters are selected and groomed for spots on regional teams. These veterans suggest that far from being an individual transgression, steroid use is, as one says, "part of the training program" in Chinese sports.
"Taking steroids is common from Shanghai to Xinjiang," says one athlete who claims to have trained for several years in a sports institute program that included steroids. He has since dropped out. Says a second alumnus: "It is common for promising young athletes to start getting steroid injections at the sports institutes at as young as 14 or 15 years of age." The Chinese athletes claim that parents of some trainees have been asked to sign statements promising to take responsibility for the doping if it is discovered.
"IRRESPONSIBLE." The All-China Sports Federation vigorously denies the charges of these athletes, calling their accusations "irresponsible." Says a federation spokesperson: "If we catch anyone administering drugs to athletes, strict punishments will be imposed in accordance with appropriate regulations." According to the federation: "All the sports organizations and sports institutes in China resolutely support and conscientiously implement every antidoping regulation set by individual sports federations."
China points out that it has taken stern action against athletes caught by international authorities: Olympic gold medalist Lu Bin, who won four gold and two silver medals at the Hiroshima Games before having them taken away by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), and another swimmer, 400-meter freestyle world champion Yang Aihua, were banned from competition for two years. According to the All-China Sports Federation, the remaining nine athletes nabbed in Japan have been given two- to four-year suspensions from all international and domestic competitions.
Despite the magnitude of the scandal, the leading world sports organizations have been slow to condemn China. FINA, the Swiss-based International Swimming Federation, has taken no action, and in fact barred Dr. Alan Richardson, chairman of FINA's medical commission and organizer of the Hiroshima sting, from talking to the press.
In April, both FINA, which a month earlier had sent a commission to China to investigate its swimming program, and the Kuwait-based OCA, announced that there was "no evidence" that China was systematically doping its athletes. These findings have met with surprise in some quarters outside China. Yoshio Kuroda, head of the OCA's medical commission, says it is impossible for "teenage athletes and their coaches" to use sophisticated drugs like DHT on their own. Even FINA itself concedes that systematic doping in China can't be ruled out--it just can't be proved.