By Forbes Carlile
SYDNEY, October 7. CHINA'S performance at the just-concluded Asian Games invites new questions about doping — not because her female swimmers were so spectacular in Busan –they weren't — but because their times were so much slower, with markedly less depth, than at recent meets in China.
At the Chinese Nationals in November, 2001 these were the first four finishers in the women's 400m freestyle:
1. Zhang Liang Age 15 4:O6.97
2. Pang Jiaying Age16 4:07.12
3. Chen Hua Age 19 4:08.27
4 Yang Yu Age 16 4:12.16
China sent a "B team" to the Pan Pacific Games in August, 2002 so that country's next big meet after its Nationals was the Asian Championships in Busan, South Korea in October.
Japan's Sachiko Yamada (20) was the winner of the 400 free in Busan in 4:07.23, followed by these Chinese swimmers:
2nd Chen Hua 20 4:12.24
3rd Tang Jingzhi 16 4:15.82
Zhang (15), Pang (16) and Yang (16) all have disappeared from the scene within a year, and Chen's time in Busan regressed four seconds from 4:08.27 to 4:12.24
Is there any other country in the world with three young women, aged 15 and 16, with times between 4:06.97 and 4:08.97 who have ever even come close to matching such an extraordinary drop in world class performances in international competition?
In practically every other women's event in Busan, the story of significantly slower times by China's women was repeated.
After the November 2001 Nationals held in Shanghai, we saw a substantial fall-off in performances when events were held outside the country. But it was not always sthe case that China's women swimmers failed to perform at their best when away from home. Casting our minds back to the FINA World Championships in 1994, it will be recalled that China's spectacularly-muscled women made an almost clean sweep of 12 gold medals, mostly in world record times.Their women certainly performed very well in distant Rome. Of course, one month later, seven of these same wwomen all tested positive for the steroid, DHT.
There has to be an explanation other than "stage fright" or "unusual food " to account for the Chinese women's performances drop-off in South Korea.
Is it being uncharitable to voice the suspicion that, once again, there is likely to be a story of performance-enhancing drugs being involved to unsettle the team? Of course as I write, no positive test results have been reported from Busan.
Remember October 1997, when Chinese women swam
"miraculous" times at China's Nationals. Three months later, when it came to performing in Perth at the World Championships, that Chinese team could only be described as abysmal following the discovery of enough human growth hormone for the entire team in the backpack of one of the Chinese swimmers. They had good reason to be very "unsettled" then.
Peaks and troughs in performances, with doping being at the core of the explanations for marked changes in standards — this has been the story of Chinese sports throughout the 1990s.
Could unreported doping of swimmers have been detected in China's domestic championships last November?
Notwithstanding the desperate efforts of many (not only China's government) to present a squeaky-clean Olympic image leading up to the hugely commercialized Beijing Games, in the six years ahead we can be sure that for China the drugs (and genetic engineering?) story is far from written.