Chinese Women vs. Men: The Performance Difference Does Not Compute

By Phillip Whitten

(This is the second in a series of articles by Swimming World editor Phil Whitten on the suspicious pattern of recent performances by China’s female swimmers. This article examines the differences between the performances of the Chinese women and men.)

PHOENIX, Jan. 9. ONE of the dead giveaways that the Chinese were systematically doping their swimmers in the 1990s was the difference in performance between their women and their men. The reason for the differential is that most performance-enhancing drugs – particularly steroids – have a much greater effect on women than men.

We had seen this pattern only once before in the history of our sport – in East Germany during the 1970s and 1980s. While the GDR’s "Wundermadchen" were, indeed, the doped-up wonders of the swimming world, breaking world records seemingly at will, only a handful of that country’s men ever made it to the highest rungs of the world rankings.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, documents from the East German Secret Police proved, beyond a shadow of doubt, that all world-class East German swimmers had systematically been doped as a matter of national policy.

When we observed this same pattern in China in the 1990s, Chinese officials accused us of "racism" and offered "reasons" for the sex differential that were laughable. Subsequent drug busts by a reluctant FINA proved, once again, the accusations were true: there was widespread, if not systematic, doping of Chinese swimmers.

After a lull of two years, the very same pattern is emerging today. The explanation is the same.

Generally, when nations excel at swimming, both men and women perform well. After all, they are being trained by the same coaches using the same philosophies. Of course, results are not identical, but they are of the same order of magnitude.

It is conceivable that there might be exceptions – when social conditions mitigate against one of the sexes. Such is the case today in many Muslim countries, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and others, where women are highly restricted in their daily activities (to put it mildly). Their opportunities in train and compete in sports – particularly one in which much of the body is unclad – is nonexistent. So you would expect male swimmers from such countries to outperform female swimmers (if any exist).

This, however, is not the case in China. There is no systemic social discrimination against men in China; in fact, despite Communist ideology and the introduction of some capitalist enterprises, it is Chinese women who are relatively disadvantaged.

Nor are small numbers relevant, as we occasionally see in such countries as Belgium, Cuba, Switzerland, Israel and so on. China is the world’s most populous country, with some 1.3 billion people – more than 20% of the world’s population. Youngsters with athletic potential are identified early, streamed into sports suitable for their body type, and trained scientifically at special athletic academies with the resources available. It would be reasonable to expect similar performances by Chinese men and women. But that’s not what we see.

Last November, barely one year after an abysmal showing at the Sydney Olympics and just four months after a lackluster showing at the World Championships, China’s women shot to the top of the world rankings. Chinese women ranked first in the world in 2001 in six of the 13 Olympic events, versus only one of 13 for the USA, easily the strongest team in Sydney, and 2 of 13 for Australia.

Six Chinese ranked second globally in 2001, versus one for the USA and two for Australia.

In all, China had 36 women ranked among the world’s top 10. The USA had 20, Australia 9.

By contrast, China had only two men ranked in the top 10 – and both were tenth. The USA had 35 with four firsts, Australia had 19 with four firsts.

Going event by event, the worst ranking in any event for China’s top female was fifth. The best ranking for a male was tenth. In other events, China’s fastest male ranked 22nd, 27th, 30th, 31st, 47th and, in the 100 free, 98th.

It doesn’t compute. In every other major swimming country – the USA, Australia, Germany, Japan, Great Britain, and so on – both men and women are comparably ranked.

Only China is different.

In the 1990s, we fought an uphill battle to get the world to care about China’s cheating, and to push FINA into doing something about it.

It is my hope that times have changed. Particularly since Beijing is hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, there is good reason to believe that Chinese officials will take effective action against doping. The doping that is going on now almost certainly is being conducted at the provincial, or even club level.

While we continue to cast an unwelcome spotlight on China and FINA, we must encourage China to act quickly to stem this latest tide of doping. In the run-up to 2008, China will want to avoid any more scandals. That's our leverage. More importantly, we owe a clean sport to the vast majority of clean athletes around the world.

Below, see a comparison of China’s top ranked woman and man in 2001 by event, and a listing of the numbers of Chinese women and men ranked in the top 10 by event.

2001 Chinese World Rankings:
Women vs. Men
World Raanking:
Event Top Woman Top Man
50m freestyle 5th 22nd
100m freestyle 2nd tie-98th
200m freestyle 1st tie-31st
1st 27th
800/1500m freestyle 2nd 12th
100m backstroke 3rd tie-47th
200m backstroke 5th 10th
100m breaststroke 1st tie-30th
200m breaststroke 1st (WR)
100m butterfly 5th tie-30th
200m butterfly 4th 22nd
200m indiv. medley 1st 13th
400m indiv. medley 1st 10th
Chinese Swimmers Ranked in the World Top
10 in 2001:
Women vs. Men, By Event
Event Women Men
50m freestyle 1 0
100m freestyle 2 0
200m freestyle 3 0
400m freestyle 3 0
800/1500m freestyle 4 0
100m backstroke 3 0
200m backstroke 3 1
100m breaststroke 1 0
200m breaststroke 3 0
100m butterfly 3 0
200m butterfly 3 0
200m indiv. medley 3 0
400m indiv. medley 4 1
TOTAL 36 2*
(*: In both events, the Chinese male
swimmer ranked 10th)
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