The China Syndrome: Here We Go Again!

by Phillip Whitten

It may be a new millennium, but the first major swim meet of the new age, the short course World Cup meet in Shanghai, China, raised a familiar red flag.

The meet saw scores of Chinese swimmers turn in world class times. What’s more, the vast majority of those Chinese swimmers were complete unknowns–swimmers who never before had cracked the top 100 in the world rankings.

“We are looking at another outbreak of Chinese doping,” claims John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association. According to an analysis by Leonard, 69% of China’s medalists in Shanghai were total newcomers. Looking just at the women, the figure skyrockets to a staggering 88 percent.

Who is Zhan Shu, who won the women’s 200 IM in 2:11.11? We only know she had never broken 2:17.6 before. What about Liang Shuang, winner of the women’s 400IM in 4:38.66, but never before under 4:50? Or Yang Yu, never previously under 4:16 for the 400 free, but all of a sudden swimming 4:06.11? Or Luo Xuejuan, who stroked a 2:24 for the 200 breast, a drop of at least nine seconds?

Now here’s the thing: We all know that swimmers have breakthroughs-where they make major improvements in their times. That’s perfectly normal. What’s not normal-in fact, what’s statistically impossible-is for literally dozens of unranked swimmers, all from the same country, to leap to the top of the world rankings at the same meet.

The fact that there were far more previously unranked female swimmers than male swimmers suddenly vaulting to the top of the world list follows the same pattern we saw in China in the 1990s and in East Germany before that-the women, who train under the same system and coaches as the men-do much better than the men.

Furthermore, none of these newcomers-nor indeed, any of China’s better known swimmers-swam particularly well at the Chinese Nationals and City Games in October. These meets, after all, were China’s major competitions of 1999, the reason China gave for withdrawing almost all her swimmers from the Pan Pacs.

So let’s see: in October, virtually all of China’s swimmers swim mediocre times in their key meet; then, three months later, in a much less important meet, everyone’s a world-beater? I don’t think so.

There’s one and only one explanation: widespread doping. As was the case in the 1990s, there will be those who will say, “let’s not jump to conclusions. We have no proof, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.” So let’s make one thing clear: The explanation is doping. This is not conjecture. It is statistical certainty.

Australian coaching legend, Forbes Carlile, puts the matter succinctly: “The finger is being pointed at China again. Every other time we’ve pointed the finger at China, we’ve been right.”

We are right again. Once again, we’re facing the specter of a dirty Olympics; of legitimate, hard-working swimmers being cheated of the fruits of their labor; and of a pall of suspicion hanging over all swimmers-including Chinese-who achieve success the old-fashioned way: through talent, hard work and good coaching.

It should be noted that it appears the Chinese swimming federation is, indeed, trying to crack down on doping, if only to restore China’s steroid-spattered image. A reported 800 tests, including 100 blood tests, were carried out last year-though so far Chinese officials have refused to divulge the names of the swimmers tested. Apparently, however, despite good intentions, the federation is unable to control doping at the provincial level-ironic in a political system characterized by centralized control and authority.

In 1993 and ’94, Swimming World waged a lonely battle in trying to bring the reality of Chinese doping to the world’s attention. This time the world is alerted and we must use our collective moral force to nip this outrage in the bud.

Fortunately, we have a powerful weapon. Beijing is currently considered the front-runner to host the 2008 Olympic Games. Especially now, as the IOC is still reeling in the wake of last year’s scandals, we can demand that China not even be considered to host the Games until the doping problem is cleaned up. Once and for all.

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