BY CRAIG LORD
WHEN Yuan Yuan, a breaststroke swimmer, arrived in Sydney on her way to the world championships in Perth, Western Australia, in 1998, customs officials found 13 phials of human growth hormone and a batch of saline solution in her luggage. China’s denials were deafening. Yuan and her coach were sent home in disgrace.
At the same time as Yuan was being questioned at Sydney airport, drug testers from the Australian Sports Drugs Agency swooped on the first group of Chinese swimmers to arrive in Perth and demanded out-of-competition urine samples.
Those tests would result in four more suspensions at that time for use of diuretics, which are banned because they can help those with something to hide flush banned substances out of the body faster than the course of nature.
It is sadly ironic, therefore, that while that scandal led China to respond with a set of stringent rules and penalties, the nation has still, apparently, not learnt its lesson.
As testers surprised the China team landing at Hiroshima airport in readiness for the Asian Games recently, seven swimmers and four athletes from other sports, among 27 suspects, tested positive for anabolic steroids. Most were for the same anabolic steroid while the culprits came from far-flung corners of China, indicating a systematic approach.
Nils Lindstedt, one of those charged with testing Chinese in all sports, believes there is a genuine commitment to clearing up the drugs crisis. After the dropping of the 27 athletes last week, he said: “I’m quite sure that there will not be any positive tests in Sydney. They can’t afford the loss of face.”
But suspicion still prevails and Wu Yanyan, the swimming world champion and record holder over 200 metres medley, who was removed from China’s Olympic swimming team after testing positive for drugs, has other ideas. Wu, 21, says that she is a victim and has threatened to expose the true scale of an alleged doping programme in her country.
Yuan Weimin, president of the Chinese Olympic Committee, was happy to have left the 27 suspects at home, saying: “We have two main goals for the Sydney Olympics. One is to surpass the medal haul from the Atlanta Games, and the other is to be successful not only as athletes but also spiritually.”
John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, said: “These things take time. People were slow to catch onto the fact that China was doping. Now they are slow to catch on to the fact that it would appear that China is making solid efforts to not have those problems.
“But what scares me is that the motivation behind that is to get the Olympic Games in 2008.”
When the vote to host the Sydney Games was taken, China’s tainted record tipped the balance in Australia’s favour – but only just. As Leonard says: “What happens if they get the Games?”