Widespread suspicion greeted the recent performances recorded at the Chinese Games in Shanghai, particularly as there has been the same sudden and astonishing improvement in the three power sports of track and field, swimming, and weightlifting.
Many observers believe the Chinese provinces have increased their systematic doping of athletes after the Atlanta Olympics in a bid to ensure success at the National Games, which determines funding levels.
The times recorded by the, er, ladies in the swimming events at the China Games are incredible. They exceed the laws of probability, and therefore we should listen to the promptings of our intuitions. Training should enhance one's powers by means of the body's normal functioning. But drugs do more than just enhance normal functioning. They cause the body to behave abnormally - not unusually well but unnaturally well.
Illegal technologies are subverting the integrity of sport when we feel inclined to speak of "the body" and not "the athlete" performing well. We want sport to reward real courage, not sophisticated science. Many think this is not happening, especially when we study the times recorded in Shanghai last week.
People recognized the familiar symptoms, when, out of blue, the Chinese staged an unbelievable recovery from a dismal showing at the last Olympics, and once again, started sweeping all before them. And the Chinese came up with nearly all the same explanations for sudden success that we had heard many years ago from their original mentors, the cheating East Germans.
For 20 years the East Germans cheated. And for 20 years FINA dithered. FINA failed miserably in not making every effort to catch the East Germans who, like the Soviets, were experts at pre-testing their athletes to ensure they were "clear" before allowing them to compete. This was at a time when steroids were fat soluble and stayed in the body longer, making them more easily detectable.
For two decades, the East German officials lied and lied and lied. They insisted, just as the Chinese do now, that they were winning fairly by dint of a "superior" system, great coaching, and superb athletes.
All this time, the world of swimming remained highly suspicious, but, to the detriment of dozens of athletes who didn't cheat, not one East German athlete was caught. Investigations have since proved that thousands of East German athletes and swimmers were involved in a program of systematic, State-sponsored performance-enhancing drug use between 1973 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Despite these revelations, the IOC and FINA have still not seen fit to erase the offenders' names from the official lists of records and results, and to retroactively award the medals, and other honours, to those who were dispossessed of what was rightfully theirs.
We are still extremely resentful that these injustices have been allowed to prevail for so long. And we are determined that it will not be allowed to happen again. Therefore, when FINA contends that it is continuing to make out-of-competition tests on Chinese swimmers, we are loathe to take their word for it that all is A-OK in the world of swimming, especially when we recall that, in 1994, FINA, and the IOC too, swore blind that the Chinese swimmers were clean after they had taken 12 of the 16 titles at the 1994 World Championships in Rome.
But, surprise, surprise! Not long afterwards, just prior to the Asian Games later that year, a Japanese testing team caught the Chinese dead to rights as they left their plane at Hiroshima. Our suspicions proved justified when seven swimmers were among the eleven Chinese who tested positive before they could reach for their masking agents.
Now, this time around, when we study the sudden and unbelievable results of the China Games in Shanghai, not only in swimming, but also in track and field, and, get this, in the new Olympic sport of women's weightlifting, everyone, except in the abodes of the guilty, agrees that cheating must have occurred.
With only three months to go, swimmers and coaches world-wide fear that Perth may produce yet another tainted World Championships meet.
Certainly the sport can rely on little succour from the FINA Bureau. FINA is already adopting the same attitude toward the Chinese as they did at the time of the long-time East German cheating. Unless something is done, and done very soon, our sport will have moved from the pool to the cesspool.
So far, despite the stepped-up testing announced by FINA at the world short course championships in Goteborg, they do not appear to be catching many drug cheaters. With all the testing being conducted by various labs, one would expect a much higher incidence of people testing positive, especially based on the evidence of abnormal recent performances.
On the face of it, there appears to be too much money available for "testing" (at $300 a test) for the meagre results obtained. Maybe the time has come for the financial dealings of some of these labs to be tested as well? Who are the owners, and why are they finding so few positives? In any event, FINA can no longer bury their heads in the sand and revert to the "where is the proof?" response used during the erstwhile East German regime.
John Hoberman wrote in his excellent book, Mortal Engines: "Drug testing is difficult for both bureaucratic and scientific reasons. The collection, custody, and accurate scientific analysis of an athlete's urine sample require the personal integrity and competence of all parties concerned, if the system is to work and inspire the confidence that is vital to upholding the moral reputation of elite sport. In addition, scientific knowledge is easily abused: It is common practice to discontinue steroid use long enough in advance of testing to escape detection. Indeed, the East German scientists developed this method to near perfection."
There are many now who believe that it is FINA that should be providing the actual proof, and no longer mere verbal assurances, that all the world's leading swimmers are being regularly tested, especially in the all-important three months before major competitions.
Furthermore, the results should be published regularly on the internet, specifying who was tested as well as when and where and by what lab. Information should also be provided about athletes who are never available when the testers call. And, while we are at it, it might be a good idea for the swimming public to know the names of all the certified labs employed in testing swimmers worldwide.
Instead of asking those who doubt the recent Chinese performances to back their accusations with facts instead of intuition, the time has come for FINA itself to become fully accountable for providing testing results right out front, in full view of the swimming public. Such an action would do much to establish some confidence in FINA, and the job it says it is doing.
FINA has a chance to redeem itself by putting officers into China (at the "invitation" of the China Swim Federation, helping them to "save face," if you like) to oversee a massive and regular testing campaign both in their sports schools and the provinces, between now and the World Championships in Perth next January. Furthermore, they now know who to test, and their coaches should know where and when to find them, and, moreover, how to find them quickly.
It is more than likely that FINA will respond negatively to such a suggestion because it cannot risk China spoiling the "cash cow" by pulling out of the 2000 Olympics. According to the World Bank, China is one of five nations, along with Russia, Indonesia, India, and Brazil, expected to experience the fastest economic growth over the next quarter century, and the IOC certainly will be loathe to let this source of potential funding slip through its hands. If China were to pull out of the "Olympic Family", a.k.a. "the world's largest professional sports conglomerate," it is not inconceivable that China, through its trade and political connections, could influence several other nations, both in Asia and Africa, to do the same.
As far as the Australians are concerned, the new round of obvious cheating by the Chinese could not have come at a worse time. Almost simultaneously with the news from Shanghai came the sensational confession by Jorg Hoffmann, the former East German 1500 world-record holder, that, way back in 1988, he had started taking Oral-Turinabol, a banned anabolic substance.
In the 1991 world swimming championships in Perth, Hoffmann had "triumphed" over the two young Australians, Kieren Perkins and Glen Houseman, breaking the world record with a time of 14:50.36 seconds, still ranked fourth fastest of all time. Swimming is a national sport in Australia with a long and honourable tradition, and so it is understandable that the Australian nation was particularly riled to learn that their two young heroes had not only been cheated, but cheated on their native soil.
Don Talbot, the head Australian swimming coach, was furious, and, suffice it to say, his description of Hoffmann was highly unflattering. Kieren Perkins, for his part, said that he wouldn't request that Hoffmann's gold medal be taken from him.
(When I read the caption to this story in the Sydney Morning Herald: "I don't want Hoffmann's drug medal, says Perkins," I couldn't help but reflect on how much the sport of swimming has changed in recent years.)
Perkins also said that "the latest drug-taking revelations had shown that in-competition testing was useless." Perkins also called for tough penalties for athletes who kept avoiding out-of-competition testing. Perkins said that, technically, people who avoided a drug test in competition, were supposed to be banned for two or four years automatically, and that a no-show is classified as a positive result. Perkins believes that the same rule should also be enforced for out-of-competition testing, and "with an iron fist," because at the moment, people are throwing obstacles in the way of the testers. "It gets to the point where after a while they can't find athletes, they can't test them, and at the end of the day, they can't really come down hard on them."
I wrote, two years ago, ("We're in for a Long Siege," SWIM Magazine, February, 1995) that "attack and retreat will be the order of the day, and that, given the opportunity, China could play a waiting cat-and-mouse game well into the next century. In the end, if long-term suspensions prove completely ineffective, total expulsion may become the only answer."
Whatever happens, as I've said before, it is possible that international swimming could split right down the middle between those who play the game according to the rules and those who don't. As it is, the IOC is seeking "uniformity" between all the Olympic sports in suggesting that there should be a maximum two year suspension for testing positive instead of the four year suspension that exists in swimming. In the light of the recent events in Shanghai and elsewhere, there is little chance now of a large segment of world swimming agreeing to water down the four-year maximum suspension as punishment for contravening the laws governing performance enhancing-substances.
Ian Hansen, media representative of Australian Swimming Inc, said that the Australian head coach, Don Talbot, had particularly noted "the remarkable improvement of Yan Chen in the 400 metres individual medley and freestyle. She had taken 20 seconds off her best times in both events in the last 12 months."
"She's gone from 22nd in the Olympic freestyle to number one in the world and in the medley from four minutes 53 seconds in the Olympics to a world record 4:34," Hanson said. "At 16, such an improvement is unheard of. There's no explanation other than drugs."
Hanson added that Australian Swimming had written to FINA "to keep them on their toes and ensure out-of-competition testing is done. We believe it's time for other countries, particularly European, to stand up and be counted and follow Australia's anti-drugs stance."
Don Talbot fears that even if IOC drug testing is stepped up in China, cheats will escape because they are using undetectable growth hormones. "If we are serious about drug testing then you have to do more than pee in a bottle," said Talbot, who called for blood testing to be introduced to help detect the illegal use of hormones.