Doping Whispers Were True Surrounding China Swimmers At ’94 World Championships

Le Jingyi at 1994 world championships
Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine

Each week until the start of the swimming competition at the world championships, Swimming World will look back at a previous performance at the world championships that still carries significance. Coverage of the World Championships is sponsored by Wylas Timing

Commentary by Jeff Commings

When the women Chinese swimmers walked onto the deck of the Stadio del Nuoto in the Foro Italico in Rome for the 1994 world championships, the whispers began suddenly. Many couldn’t believe the people walking by them were actually women. The heavy musculature, the deep voices, the above-average height. Those three factors had many at the meet – especially those who were around for the 1976 Olympics – wondering if they were looking at the next regime of drug doping.

It would take about three years to prove it with widespread positive drug tests from Chinese swimmers in 1997, but it was very likely that the Chinese women who won all but four swimming events and set five world records were undergoing illegal doping at the 1994 worlds. No one had proof at the time, and the Chinese coaching staff attributed it all to hard work, including “training with the men,” as sprint freestyler Le Jingyi put it.

It was Le who turned the whispers into shouts on the first day of competition in Rome. Le won the 100 freestyle and broke Jenny Thompson’s two-year-old world record with a 54.01. As described in the November 1994 issue of Swimming World Magazine:

Le Jingyi exploded off the blocks … to emerge a clear three feet ahead of all but teammate Lu Bin. Le’s aggressive flailing stroke with a fast turnover translated into a 50 split of 25.79 seconds, a staggering 1.03 seconds faster than the halfway speed clocked by … Thompson on her way to 54.48 seconds – the world record before Le touched in an astounding 54.01 seconds.

The 100 freestyle was sheer power. Technique be damned, Le was easily the strongest person in the field, and no amount of technical acuity by such expert swimmers as Thompson and Fransiszka Van Almsick could match it.

Le would close out her meet with another world record, this time a 24.51 that broke the record of Chinese Olympic champion Yang Wenyi from 1992. Le was a stunning half a second ahead of the rest of the field, something that does not happen in the 50 free at the highest level. Both world records would last six years, until Inge de Brujin of the Netherlands tied the 50 free record and shattered the 100 free mark with the first swim under 54 seconds in 2000.

Wylas Timing

The question of whether the Chinese women were doping began about six months earlier, when several women — Le included — won gold medals and set world records at the inaugural short course world championships. In fact, most of the Swimming World Magazine coverage of the meet focused on the metoric rise of the Chinese women. In 1993, Le won four gold medals at the short course world championships, all in world record time, and would double down on those victories with four more in Rome in 1994.

Though most of the winners from the Chinese team would disappear after the world championships, Le stayed on the scene and won the 100 freestyle at the 1996 Olympics with a 54.50. The Chinese women who were at the Atlanta Olympics were already under the microscope, and Le’s winning time – half a second slower than her world record – only raised suspicion more. But Le ended her career without ever testing positive.

Le Jingyi wins 100 freestyle at 1996 Olympics



  1. Niles Keeran

    Thanks to the STEROID East German communistic block training the Chinese, did you expect the Chinese to come out of the shadows to set these statistics, wins, and world records in the early to mid 1990’s! The East German women all looked like a Bruce Jenner on anabolic progesterone!

    • avatar

      Very true. Not sure how ppl didn’t find this out before.

    • avatar

      I wonder if the timely crossing sexual lines reference to Bruce Jenner was intended or simply irony uninformed. Bruce/Caitlyn is trying to move his chemistry back to where it wouldn’t have been illegal in female competition.

  2. avatar
    Lane Four

    I can still remember Rome ’94 as if it was yesterday. Never forget. Never ever forget.

  3. David O

    who could forget that back & lats hanging out of the suit as she emerged from the pool and hulked the pool deck

  4. avatar

    Very fast, but they’re STILL cheaters. End of story.

  5. avatar
    Jack Simon

    i was at that meet in Rome and watched the Chinese dominate. A number of the Chinese women who set records were dirty, but there are some that did it through hard work and talent.

  6. avatar

    Isn’t there anything else better to write about from those championships? Like maybe some great performance or another where other athletes rose the Chinese? To me this story is old, and carries no impact because history shows nobody cares enough to revisit and correct the results. Bottom line is the East Germans, and then the Chinese totally got away with it. And as a side note the Chinese have only learned that even though doping is somewhat risky the reward is worth it. All they have to do is look at history. The East Germans got the gold medals. And nobody has the stones to demand them back! If we ever get evidence of Chinese doping systemically from that era they can expect to keep their gold too.

    • avatar
      Lane Four

      VERY GOOD POINT! Although we need to remember these moments, we should also focus on the two most special performances from those worlds – Kieren Perkins’ 400 WR and Franziska Van Almsick facing the Chinese swimmer Lu Bin and beating her with an outstanding new world record in the 200. Both of those swims still give me tingles when I watch on Youtube.

    • avatar

      Ask the swimmers if it was “worth it” or if they feel they “got away with it”. Their legacy is being maligned by the swimming community for being cheats while swimmers like Evans, Egerszegi, and VanAlmsick are still revered for their David vs Goliath performances. Keep the medals; hardware doesn’t define the human spirit.

  7. avatar

    Also this story about “doping whispers turning out to be true” is too close on the heels of SW’s Hosszu gate debacle. It’s the first thing I thought of when I read it – a subtle way of saying here at SW we did a stupid thing running that commentary …. but sometimes doping rumors turn out to be true. So wait a little on Hosszu? We may have a point after all. I don’t like it.

  8. A fascinating discussion is worth comment. There’s no doubt
    that that you should publish more about this subject matter,
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    • avatar
      Lane Four

      I agree!

  9. avatar

    I’m just going to call this article – and the weekly poll – what they are: thinly veiled justification for the huge gaffe publishing the opinion piece about Katinka Hosszu.

    • avatar

      Thanks Bill, thinly veiled indeed.

  10. avatar

    I’m glad Jeff posted this. The whispers about the East German women were also true, as were those about Michelle Smith, Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson, Marion Jones…the list goes on and on… it’s not just from other decades. For example, there were whispers about Sun in London, and Yefimova in Barcelona–was anybody really surprised when they tested positive not long thereafter?

    While they can be sometimes, whispers aren’t always malicious, jealous, or destructive. In the absence of adequate testing and even adequate punishment for proven doping, whispers are sometimes the only recourse for the disenfranchised who value truth, fairness, and justice. Not everybody who is suspected is guilty, but as both recent and past history shows us: where there was fire.. there was almost always plenty of smoke. For every swimmer falsely accused there are many who got away with it– and many of those are still sitting with unearned medals, accolades, endorsements, revenue. And it’s not just swimming. The whispers are inevitable when there is lack of transparency and accountability. I say make the whispers even louder, across all sports, but direct them instead toward officials who have the power to do something about this. Otherwise it’s just a guessing game every time you look at athletes on a podium. It’s a game that we all hate to play, but in the absence of other options, if you don’t, you end up years later with your fantasy world bubble burst over and over again…

    • avatar
      Lane Four

      Very well said!