August 18, 2000


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Shamed China hopes to make big splash

Tan Ee Lyn in Beijing

Shamed by doping scandals that have dimmed their swimming glory days of the early 1990s, China has been going to extraordinary lengths to prove it can win cleanly in the Sydney Olympic pool.

Wu YanyanUnderlining its determination to snuff out drugs, Beijing banned one of its best women swimmers, Wu Yanyan, for four years in July after she tested positive for an anabolic steroid at a national championship and Olympics qualifier in May.

"I can say our tests and regulations are tougher than all other associations," said Zhang Qiuping, vice chairman of the Chinese Swimming Association.

Referring to Wu's case, Zhang said: "We found this out ourselves and we will punish her ourselves. Our determination is very strong. As for punishment, we will not give any consideration no matter how special the athlete is."

At the training venue for top athletes in central Beijing, drug test officials pay frequent surprise visits.

A Chinese anti-doping official crouches by the training pool and stretches out to a national swimmer at the end of a lap.

He pricks the swimmer's finger, collects a blood sample and inserts the test-tube carefully in a wooden case.

In the first half of 2000, every national athlete was targeted for between seven to 10 blood tests, both in and out of competition, coaches and officials say.

Wu, world champion in women's 200 metres individual medley in 1998, was to have been a key Chinese swimmer in Sydney and her removal dealt a blow to the country's medal hopes.

Wu insists she is clean and plans to sue national swimming authorities for banning her.

China's swimmers emerged from nowhere in the early 1990s to win four golds in Barcelona in 1992 and grab 12 out of 16 women's titles in the 1994 world championships in Rome.

The Chinese national team have been hit by a series of doping scandals since the Asian Games in Hiroshima in 1994 and the 25-member Sydney squad may be a poor shadow of the once-dominant swimming powerhouse.

Its handful of veterans are struggling to get back in form, while the rest will be less experienced first time Olympians.

China's top swimming coach Zhao Ke has said winning even one gold may prove too elusive.

But while shaken, China's Olympic swimmers say they will not be written off lightly in Sydney.

"Frankly, Chinese swimming is in a trough and this (Wu's doping scandal) is the worst that could have happened. But it pushes us to train even harder," said Liu Limin, 24, who will make her second Olympic appearance in Sydney.

"We have gone through many highs and lows after so many years. We are trying to recover from this episode, we hope to change how people outside think about us," said the Atlanta Games women's 100 metres butterfly silver medallist.

Fifteen-year-old rising star Qi Hui, ranked world number three in women's 200 metres breaststroke, said: "What Yanyan used is no concern of mine, it hasn't much impact. I will do my best."

Long distance specialist Chen Hua, who bagged golds for 800 metres freestyle in short-course world championships in 1999 and 2000, was philosophical about problems confronting her team.

"In fact it may work positively for us, it will push us harder. After all, Australia is very prejudiced against us and thinks very lowly of us. So if we train hard and get good results, it'll change their views of us," Chen said.

Drugs aside, the lack of motivation and relatively fast burnout rate among top Chinese swimmers are undermining China's ambitions for more international sports triumphs.

While Americans Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres, Scottish Alison Sheppard and Dutch Inge De Bruijn are still competing at the top of their specialities in their late 20s and early 30s, Chinese women swimmers are retiring around 20.

At 20, Chen Yan, world champion for 400 metres individual medley in 1998, has lost her lustre after suffering stomach problems in the last two years. She will compete in Sydney.

Le Jingyi, 25, who took gold in the 100 metres freestyle and silver in the 50 freestyle in Atlanta, and held world records for both sprint freestyle distances for nearly six years, could not even make it past the Olympic qualifier in May.

Zhang of the Chinese Swimming Association blamed pressure of competition from younger swimmers and post-retirement worries for the short competition span of Chinese athletes.

"They feel they are getting older and they have to train more, sacrifice more to keep at the top, so they give up. Others just want to go to university to get a good job," Zhang said.

Chung Pak-kwong, director of the Elite Training Group at the Hong Kong Sports Institute said: "It's very competitive on the mainland. They start very young and when they reach the top, they can easily be sidelined as many young ones keep coming up."

A sporting career in China is far from lucrative and athletes are more likely to bolt when presented with brighter prospects.

"In the West, successful athletes earn a lot from commercial sponsorship the longer they stay. But in China, sports has not developed in this way. Rather, the country arranges jobs for retired athletes and all they do is continue to work for the country, so the drive is not as strong," Chung said.

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