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.
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