September 9, 2000


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Australia's drug propaganda gets arrogant

Andy O'Brien

Chinese track coach Ma Junren is one of the most successful, controversial, intriguing, and elusive coaches in recent memory. He has been venerated by the people of China for bringing athletic glory to the nation, though his aloofness and autocratic ways have drawn the ire of officials.

This week, nine days before the opening ceremony of the Sydney Games, Ma, along with 12 other Chinese Olympic team officials and 27 athletes, including six of his runners, was dropped from the squad because "health tests" revealed a higher-than-accepted concentration of red blood cells in the athletes. The Chinese Olympic Committee announced that the trimming of the team was part of its "prolonged, arduous and complicated fight" against doping. The number of officials was lowered to adjust to the smaller team of athletes.

Runners discovered and developed by Ma hold world records in the women's 1500, 3000, 5000 and 10,000 meters. Members of the so-called "Ma's Army" stunned the track world at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, by taking gold in the women's 1500, sweeping the women's 3000, and finishing 1-2 in the women's 10,000 (the 5000 was not contested at worlds until 1995). Before '93, no Chinese woman had won a world title or set a world record on the track.

Virtually all of those runners eventually bolted Ma's camp during a revolt in December 1994, claiming physical and mental abuse, cruelty, and theft of their winnings from the '93 worlds.

The most notable departee was Wang Junxia, who, minus Ma at the 1996 Olympics, won gold in the 5000 and silver in the 10,000.

Ma is known to ask extraordinary things of his athletes, whom he trains in isolation and puts through marathon-length mileage virtually every day. He also is known to supplement their diets with exotic elixirs, such as caterpillar fungus and turtle extract. Until recently, Ma had been MIA on the world stage, virtually unseen since emerging in 1993. Since then, he has feuded regularly with China's track and field governing body, withholding his athletes from major competitions -- including the 1995, 1997 and 1999 World Championships -- because he refused to comply with requirements that Chinese runners qualify at national meets to be eligible to compete internationally.

For his part, Ma says his long absence is related to poor health (there have been reports of liver, throat, and heart problems) and a big project: a multi-million dollar training facility he recently finished in his hometown of Dalian, an hour's plane flight east of Beijing.

What do we do with the news of the man they call The Pheno-MA-non? We can celebrate and say we told you so. Australia's swim coaches are lining up to do that.

Or we can congratulate China for tackling drug abuse within its sport system. No one seems to be particularly interested in that option. Seems a bit too gracious.

Or we can be cynical and suggest that if Beijing wasn't in the running for the 2008 Games, coaches would still be tipping steroids and EPO down the throats of their athletes by the bucketful.

It appears Australia and the rest of the world has chosen options one and three.

It is the easiest reaction, of course. Rather than pat the Chinese authorities on the back, we are patting ourselves up and down the spine. It appears this self-congratulation is endemic in Australian sport. They either applaud their athletes for competing against drug cheats or they praise themselves for forcing other countries to come clean.

A Chinese journalist when asked on arrival at Sydney airport on Thursday about the drug withdrawals arrival, said: "Why are you calling this a drug scandal. This is not a scandal, this is something good that China has done. It would have been a scandal had we sent these athletes to the Games and they were caught. This is a positive move and we should be congratulated for it."

The Australian swimming coaches and their charges have effectively conditioned the public to accept that anyone who beats an Australian or swims fast times can only be propelled by illegal substances.

Australians have no pre-ordained right to world records or genetic gifts that allow them to swim faster than other people. It is mean-spirited and arrogant.

But worse than that, as self-appointed drug commissioners for the world, Australia's chortling over China's decision is counter-productive to the cause of cleaning up world sport.

Instead, China is being ridiculed. When told of China's decision, Ian Thorpe's coach, Doug Frost, laughed contemptuously.

If countries that do crack down on drug abuse among their athletes are treated with just as much derision and suspicion after their best efforts to produce drug-free competitors, then they have little incentive to stop past practices.

If people are going to call you cheats anyway, what the heck. Take the drug, win the gold.

So, rather than be encouraged and applauded for their latest and strongest stand yet, China has been condemned.

Not one commentator has thought that China's decision might just be driven by the rather noble thought that the Games should be a true and natural test of one athlete against another.

It is appropriate for Australia or any other country to hold such pious views of sport, but not China or any other country - apparently.

If that is the case, then just who in Australia will deem which events should be accorded the status of "clean gold"? Presumably, only events that Australia wins will count.

Such is the state of world sport that we are expected to suspend belief when we see extraordinary feats on the field, in the pool, on the bike track. Sport would not be worth watching, reporting or chronicling if we did not take on face value what takes place in front of us.

As a consequence of devaluing the best efforts of competitors, Australia also devalues the achievement of its own. It is worth noting, too, that on the same day China dropped athletes from its team, a court in Leipzig was told the decorated Olympic swimmer Kristin Otto was administered the steroid turanibol by her coach, Stefan Hetzer. Otto won six gold medals at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

Otto's performance is diminished immediately but only because there is a presumption that her competitors were not using drugs to enhance their performances. The way Australian athletes and officials carry on, the presumption that athletes are clean until proved otherwise will no longer apply.

When that happens, who gives a damn who wins or loses.

You may as well cancel the Sydney Games which is being billed the Friendly Games.



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