The cynics in the sport saw it coming.
After keeping a surprisingly low profile at the Atlanta Olympics and through most of the 1997 season, the Chinese let out all the stops in Shanghai at their eighth National Games. We knew they would.
The most startling news was the fall of Petra Schneider's 400 IM world mark. The last remaining record of the East German era, a monumental 4:36.10, had stood for over 15 years. Countless world-class swimmers had attempted to reach it, and only a few, including Hungary's phenomenal Krisztina Egerszegi, had come even close.
Yan Chen, 16, made that time seem like an age group swim, rewriting the mark at 4:34.79, an incredible 1.4 second improvement. Ranked second in the world last year, Yan Chen made few appearances this year, apparently saving the best for last.
And that was only the beginning. Two days later Yanyan Wu from the Guangxi region obliterated the 200 IM record of 2:11.65 set in Barcelona by her compatriot Li Lin. An astonishing, or perhaps not so, 2:09.72, or a 1.93 second improvement. Yan Chen was right behind her in 2:11.27, also under the old record. It is somehow inconsistent that Wu could not manage better than second place in the B final in Atlanta. And rumour has it that she has developed an impressive musculature over the last year...
Given Ying Shan's 24.71 50 freestyle that eclipsed world record holder Jingyi Le's 24.88, the turtle soup in Shanghai must have been particularly potent. Yingjuan Zheng, a complete unknown, appropriated the number one ranking for 1997 in the 200 backstroke with a 2:08.51. Even the men showed more punch than ever, with numerous national records and times that put them in the running for spots in the finals in Perth.
So where do we go from here? If these performances are any indication, the World Championships in January could be a repeat of Rome in 1994, and we'll all know the Chinese anthem by heart at their closing. Or will they pull another Atlanta and finish as also-rans in the consolation finals?
Forgive the suspicion, but when the results of women's track and field and better yet, weightlifting (a beauty! 27 world records broken in in nine categories...) at those same National Games defy all logic, it is difficult to keep a straight face. As an aside, women's weightlifting, certainly not one of the cleaner and more gracious sports, will be making its appearance in the Olympic program next time around in Sydney. A made-to-order sport for the Chinese, whose list of positive drug tests continues to climb.
And yet, all proposed solutions come to naught. We could demand the publication of all drug test results in China, we could boycott sporting events, but no one in the ranks of the sporting "authorities" seems ready to bat an eyelid. It is, after all, completely normal that the Chinese excel. Eight years of National Games have proven the results possible with commitment, determination and...turtle soup.
Eight years...only one more than the seven it has taken to dissect the cadaver of the East German sport system, and to start righting the wrongs of years of drug-powered glory. Petra Schneider was no longer a name that inspired respect. Yan Chen and Yanyan Wu have come out of a nowhere that is no more credible.