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Blood Tests Boost War On Doping

Jul 30, 2011  - Craig Lord

Day 7 prelims, Oriental Sports Center, Shanghai

The last weekend of the 14th FINA World Championships. The divers done, the marathon lines drawn for London 2012, the synchro girls swanned off, the water polo women played out, the men of Italy and Serbia still to play for gold, the swimmers with 13 finals to fathom, one of those, the 1,500m for men, to go without Olympic champion Oussama Mellouli (TUN) and European champion Sebastien Rouault (FRA), both of whom missed the cut. 

Out of water, the big news is that a Biological Passport scheme has been approved by the FINA Bureau, with Ryan Lochte the first pool swimmer to get a stamp at the start of longitudinal profiling of athletes in the sport.

It took a while, the idea on the table when the China crisis of the late 1990s was in full flow. Better late than never. Better too to get the details right, the scheme approved after long consideration by FINA's anti-doping experts. 

FINA issued a statement confirming the passport scheme:

At its second meeting in Shanghai (CHN), on July 28, the FINA Bureau approved a pilot project for the creation of an “Athlete’s Biological Passport”, the most advanced tool in the fight against doping in Sport. The “Athlete’s Biological Passport” allows the establishment of a longitudinal study and haematological profile on each athlete, with the aim of detecting if blood manipulations are done in order to carry a higher percentage of oxygen (thus “masking” any intake of forbidden substances).

“With this new tool, FINA will definitively remain at the forefront of the doping fight in sport. We have had a leading role among International Federations on this matter over the last years and we want to continue our successful strategy. Following the experts’ advice on these issues, FINA is certainly taking the right step in strengthening the battle against cheaters,” considered FINA President Dr. Julio C. Maglione.

Beyond that news and the billboarding Lochte Vs Phelps fight, talk trains in on the tightness of races,  prelims, semis and finals as swimmers seek to find themselves in world between the artificial overload that ballooned like a fat man on a diet of lard and coke in 2009 and the reality of a life spent in pursuit of improvement when the preface 'self-' is far more literal.

Plenty of progress has unfolded this week but much is masked behind a wall of start sheets and biographies that to an alien arriving on planet swim could be forgiven for thinking he'd disturbed a world during its nap.

Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, Alex Dale Oen and Melissa Franklin, Park Tae-hwan and Sun Yang have all raced into uncharted waters this week. Many others have too, while China, the hosts, is having a belter of a meet. 

The top of the table reads:

  • USA     9    4    5    18 
  • CHN     4    1    7    12 
  • AUS     2    6    1     9 
  • FRA     2    2    3     7 

After that, with Japan the exception but still seeking gold, you are talking about nations that are relying on one or swimmers for their place in the podium pecking order.

Look at China's voyage:

  • Melbourne 2007:   0    1    1    2
  • Beijing 2008:         1    3    2    6 
  • Rome 2009:           4    2    4    10
  • Shanghai 2011:      4    1    7    12*
  • *- after 6 of 8 days

In the mix of that are the tales of talent honed overseas, Sun Yang on the Gold Coast, Liu Zige in Australia, with time spent in Britain and elsewhere. And then there are the newcomers we have never heard of but racing on to the podium at a world championships in their teens in a their first year of appearing on the world rankings.

When the US and France finished 1-2 in the 4x200m relay last night, China took bronze, a first relay medal for the host's men in swimming history. Their time, 7:05.67, translates to this: counting textile times only, quartets from the US, Australia back in 2001 and France here in Shanghai are the only foursomes to ever swim faster than China. Extraordinary progress is the only way to put it for a nation that until a home Olympics in Beijing struggled to get its men among the top 10 nations in the world.

In the midst of that success story is Wang Shun: with an opening split of 1:47.09, he rocketed up to 12th on the 200m solo world rankings for 2011, improved on his previous best time of 1:48.04, from heats, and that after a 1:48.44 at trials in April to qualify. The power of a home crowed knows no bounds. Before all of that, Wang, 17 this year, had never featured on the world rankings. The only other of his age in the top 50 in the world is Funiya Hidaka, of Japan, on 1:48.74.

While Sun and Zhang have trained and do train overseas, Wang and Li are made in China, so far, and have never been seen outside of China in international competition though they do train in Australia. Wang's time compares to efforts of 1:46.00 for Ian Thorpe and 1:49.53 for Grant Hackett at the same age.

Wang, who is tipped as a medley man, and Li both train in the same group as Sun Yang in China and visit the Gold Coast and Denis Cotterell's programme as regularly as Sun does. 

Li, 18 this year, he has a best time of 1:47.69 from April trials. Before that, his best was 1:49.50 from last year and before that he had no ranking. Like Wang, Li is the fastest of his age in the world this year.  A completely different quartet represented China at the world s/c championships in Dubai last year, Jiang Haiqi, Zhang Zhongchao, Jiang Yuhui and Dai Jun finishing 6th in the 4x200m final but serving as reserved here in Shanghai.

Those who have been working on quartets from Australia, Italy, Britain, Germany and elsewhere for many years now must surely look at China's massive improvement in the 4x200m relay for men and wonder where they are going wrong.

There are some who feel similarly sunk when staring at the mighty feats of Lochte, who in Shanghai became the first big gun to join the Biological Passport scheme that has been approved by the FINA Bureau here in Shanghai. Great news. Open waters swimmers were the first to submit to blood testing in Shanghai, while Lochte is one of dozens of passports stamped for the first time at the start of a longitudinal profiling of athletes that links domestic and international programmes.

In some parts of the world, that will mean reasonably regular visits, in parts of the world where there is no national anti-doping programme it will mean that athletes will not be exposed to the system in the same way that the likes of Lochte, Phelps, Biedermann, Adlington and others from leading Olympic sports nations are. 

Regardless of any difficulties ahead, this is a moment to celebrate, one that was muted back in the days of China crisis in the late 1990s but has taken a long time to get to where it is: the cusp of a new tier in the fight against doping in sport that is in relative infancy in a world where gene technology is about to (probably already has) raised the stakes.

The world championships is also a place where, every two years, delegates from FINA member nations gather to do business. The business of politics is heavy in the mix, with 115 of about 180 nations here present on universality packages. Most have no elite swim programmes to speak of back home but they all have a vote equal in measure to the US, Australia, Japan, China and so on. There are consequences to such models and the politicians know it, the power play underway as furious at times as the swimming in the pool. 

Take Europe, a continental body of more than 50 nations and represented strongly at the helm of the international federation at many levels. Next year it will hold elections for LEN, the European swimming league. Votes will take place in 2012 but the deal has been done in Shanghai, according to SwimNews sources. If Paolo Barelli, the honorary secretary of FINA, becomes LEN President next year, if current incumbent Nory Krutchen becomes an Hon member for life, if David Sparkes becomes sec gene of LEN, if … we shall know whether the rumours of deliberations and deals designed to make Europe stronger in FINA and poised to take control when the international federation holds its own Congress in 2013 were right or not and whether what unfolds next year was already set in stone in the corridors of European power at temporary HQ in China.

And so to the last weekend of the battle that counts most, the prospect of Lochte's fifth gold and golds 3 and 4 for Phelps in a down season (imagine that), the 800m bout between Adlington, Friis and Co, Sun Yang's attack on Grant Hackett's nemesis to shiny standards in the 1500m free all to come.

Prelim reports:

Women's 50m freestyle

Therese Alshammar (SWE), heading for a final of the 50 'fly tonight, shared the helm of heat 11 and all heats this morning with Jessica hardy (USA), on 24.82. The next and last heat saw the 100m joint champion of yesterday, Aliaksandra Herasimenia (BLR) out front on 24.85, with heat 10 having gone to Dorothea Brandt (GER) in 24.86 ahead of the first of two Dutch sprinters just over the 25sec mark, Marleen Veldhuis on 25.01, Ranomi Kromowidjojo in heat 12 on 25.03.

The defending champion Britta Steffen is on a flight back to Germany after having withdrawn from further action in the wake of 16th place in the heats of the 100m on 54.8. Team Germany believed it in everyone's interest to send the former star of its team home, in part to avoid the distraction  of it all. Steffen's announcement affected the German medley relay but the quartet who remain made it through to the final in last place by 0.6sec this morning.

Qualifiers: Alshammar, Hardy, Herasimenia, Brabdt, Veldhuis, Kromowidjojo, Van Landeghem, Halsall, Weir, Kukla, Drakou, Halicek, Ottesen, Poon, Vanderpool-Wallace, Matsumoto. 

Women's 50m breaststroke

Three of the favourites for the podium each took a heat in quick succession, Yuliya Efimova (RUS) on 30.72 in heat 3, Rebecca Soni (USA) matching the time in heat 4, before world record holder Jessica Hardy (USA) swept past them with a 30.20 blast. Close by were Jennie Johansson (SWE), 30.89, and Leisel Jones (AUS), on 30.93, with her teammate and Commonwealth champion Leiston Pickett the first of the 31-plus qualifiers, on 31.07.

Qualifiers: Hardy, Efimova, Soni, Johansson, Jones, Pickett, Ejdervik, Haywood, Liu, Nijhuis, Zhao, Chocova, McMahon, Pedersen, Van Biljon, Trepp. 

Men's 50m backstroke

Former world champion Gerhard Zandberg (RSA) set the pace at 24.72 ahead of Flori Lang (SUI), ASchwim Wildeboer (ESP), Guy Barnea (ISR) and Nick Thoman (USA), whose 25.22 was matched by teammate David Plummer at then helm of heat 5 ahead of defending champion  Liam Tancock (GBR), on 25.26. In the last heat, Camille Lacourt (FRA) sidled up closest to Zandberg in 25.03, Helge Meeuw (GER) 0.01sec away, with Junya Koga (JPN) on 25.17.

Qualifiers: Zandberg, Lacourt, Meeuw, Lang, Wildeboer, Koga, Barnea, Thoman, Plummer, Tancock, Grigoriadis, Di Tora, Stoeckel, Delaney, Lijesen, Francis.

Women's 4x100m medley

Elizabeth Pelton, Rebecca Soni, Christine Magnuson and Amanda Weir granted the US lane four in 3:56.95 ahead of 3:59s from Russia and China in heat 3 and Australia and Britain started the sub-4min club in heat two, both on 3:59s. Japan, Canada and Germany completed the final line-up. The US has some 3sec gain ahead of it in the might of its final line-up for tonight, but the 3:52.19 world mark of China back in Rome 2009 will be a tough nut to crack.

Men's 1500m freestyle

Sun Yang warned up for a crack at the crown and Grant Hackett's masterpiece with a 14:48.13 cruise in the last of four heats, quite a bit faster than the 15:07.19 in which Hackett booked his place in a final for that stunning 14:34.56 victory in Fukuoka at the 2001 championships.

Next through after Sun was Gergo Kis (HUN) on 14:52.72 in heat 2 just ahead of Americans Peter Vanderkaay, on 14:54.99, and Chad La Tourette, on 14:55.59, and Pal Joensen (FAR), on 14:56.66. Ryan Cochrane (CAN) claimed heat 3 on 14:55.86, ahead of Samuel Pizzetti (ITA), on 14:58.30, with Yohsuke Miyamoto (JPN) on 14:57.12 behind Sun in the last heat to ensure a sub-15-minute final.

Among those locked out: Mateusz Sawrymowicz (POL), the 2007 champion, on 15:02.56, Sebastien Rouault (FRA), the European champion, on 15:05.88 in 10th, and Oussama Mellouli (TUN), the Olympic champion, on 15:13.56 for fifth.