August 16, 2000


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China on anti-doping offensive

Jeremy Page

Dodging trays piled with ginseng roots, diet pills and health tonics, Zhang Changjiu slips on a white laboratory coat and marshals his troops into action.

Around him, technicians in shorts and flip-flops brandish pipettes and test tubes over bunsen burners and dust down an array of bulky computer equipment in a rundown building on the edge of Beijing's 1990 Asian Games sports complex.

This is the frontline of China's war against doping -- a scourge which has stripped record-breaking athletes of their medals and smeared the nation's sporting image with allegations that it runs an East German-style state doping programme.

China's sports chiefs have launched an offensive ahead of the Sydney Olympics to try to bury the cheating image for good and clear the air for Beijing's bid to host the Games in 2008.

But the anti-doping campaign is crippled by a shortage of resources and the state's waning control over coaches and athletes, for whom victory means lucrative sponsorship deals and access to scarce government sports subsidies.

Zhang's team of 14 chemists and doctors at the National Test and Research Centre of Doping and Sports Nutrition handled more than 3,500 tests in 1999, almost double the number in 1995.

They also began doing blood tests for the first time to try to curb use of the banned and notoriously hard to detect hormone erythrpoietin (EPO).

"It's a big task," says Zhang, as he instructs a junior colleague testing a urine sample for anabolic steroids.

"From the point of view of the number of doping tests, China is now one of the top ranking countries in the world."

The campaign has already begun to pay off. China caught 16 of their athletes taking drugs last year, including seven in track and field and five weightlifters.

But therein lies the catch. The more athletes China authorities expose, the more damage is done to the country's sporting reputation, already in tatters after a series of high profile scandals in the 1990s.

Chinese swimmers were stripped of nine of their 23 gold medals at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima after seven of them failed drug tests.

Four more Chinese swimmers returned positive dope tests at the 1998 Perth world championships while another and her coaches were caught trying to smuggle a hormone through Sydney airport.

Some 10 Chinese swimmers and swimming coaches were suspended for doping offences in 1999.

And most recently, world champion swimmer Wu Yanyan tested positive for an anabolic steroid and was banned for four years.


Chinese officials say they are exasperated by the persistence of doping scandals and accusations by Western athletes and coaches that they are turning a blind eye to the problem.

"We're not saying we don't have a problem, but you can't say every time a doping case appears that the Chinese government is involved," said Shi Kangcheng, Director of Administration of the Chinese Olympic Committee's Anti-Doping Commission.

"We think doping is cheating," he said. "It is immoral, it is against Chinese law and it is against the principles of fair competition of the International Olympic Committee."

As well as stepping up the number of dope tests, China has added fines of up to 80,000 yuan ($9,700) to mandatory suspensions and launched a propaganda drive to educate coaches and athletes on the risks of doping.

"There are some Chinese athletes and coaches who think everyone else is using dope so if we don't, we'll lose," Shi said. "We're trying to develop the concept that even if others use it, you don't have to."

But the message does not always get through.

The commercialisation of sport in China has sparked fierce competition between coaches and athletes for scarce state sport subsidies and lucrative sponsorship deals and appearance fees.

Athletes accustomed to taking a cocktail of traditional Chinese herbal medicines and daily health tonics are easily persuaded to add banned substances to their diet, officials say.

"We cannot rule out the possibility that some athletes use stimulants," Shi said. "The problem is that the media over-emphasises the importance of gold medals. Winners become heroes, so athletes and coaches create a culture of gold medal worship."


Sports officials said the most commonly used drugs in China were strength-building steroids available without prescription in drug stores, but more sophisticated drugs such as EPO were increasingly smuggled in or sold over the Internet.

Zhang estimates 10 percent of all athletes, including Chinese, are using EPO, the blood-boosting hormone regarded as one of the most dangerous drugs in sport.

EPO is suspected to have killed several cyclists in Europe since it was first introduced to treat kidney disease in the mid-1980s.

In the runup to Sydney, Chinese officials say they are targeting eight events where doping is most widespread -- athletics, swimming, wrestling, weightlifting, cycling, wrestling, judo and canoeing -- and introduced random out-of-competition tests.

"If you only test at competition, athletes know when to expect the test," said Shi. "All athletes should face the possibility of taking dope tests within 24 hours."

Doping officials have even incurred the wrath of track coach Ma Junren, who blamed lengthy urine tests for the defeats of his middle distance runners at Olympic trials in June.

Despite their zeal, Shi said he could not guarantee China would not suffer further doping scandals in Sydney.

"If the government had been controlling a doping programme, then it could say 'we guarantee there will be no doping cases in Sydney', but it's up to the coaches and athletes."

"I feel like a policeman -- he can't say there are no criminals out there but he can try his best to fight crime."

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