John Leonard is ready to believe the Chinese Swimming Federation.
Claims by Chinese officials that China has introduced harsh penalties for athletes caught taking banned drugs may just be the truth, says the American vice-president of the World Swimming Coaches Association.
On a trip to Hong Kong to give a Level 2 Stroke Clinic in early November, Leonard on his own initiative spent several days collecting information on the drug situation in China. (He actually succeeded in getting a day pass into the country.) Among the people he met were mainland Chinese swimming coaches and officials, swimming parents, journalists from both mainland and Hong Kong publications, medical doctors, pharmacists, and traditional Chinese doctors.
After many hours of (sometimes risky) discussion, Leonard concluded that the Chinese Swimming Federation has absolutely no control over swimmers, coaches and doctors working in the sport in China. In other words, doping in China is not systematic on a national level, but rather is motivated by a system of financial rewards at the regional and municipal levels.
While he was unable to secure any concrete proof of doping practices, Leonard drafted a report of his findings "based on repeated information from a multitude of sources," which he presented to FINA president Mustapha Larfaoui in Rio de Janeiro during the Doping Congress. Disappointed by Larfaoui's nonplussed reaction to the report, he feels that, based on his experiences, renewed pressure has to be applied in the case of China.
"I'm no detective," said Leonard, "What struck me is that this information is not hard to find. All you have to do is walk around and talk to people."
The fact that much of the content of Leonard's report seems to be "common items of discussion" is troubling indeed. Interestingly, an article by Richard McGregor and Nicole Jeffery appeared in The Australian in late November to back up his claims. They quoted Hong Kong's national swimming coach Chan Yiu Hoi as saying that officials in Beijing were making a concerted effort to eradicate doping, but it was having little impact in the provinces because "they have lost control. They can't stop the coaches." It appears that competition between the provinces in China is so intense that athletes consider a medal at the National Games to be of greater value than an Olympic medal. The financial rewards are also in keeping with that mentality.
Of particular interest in Leonard's report were the following items:
Leonard is now convinced that while the Chinese Olympic Committee and Chinese Swimming Federation may be totally sincere in their desires to do whatever is necessary to curb their doping problem, they are far from controlling their internal situation. His report states, "As long as the provincial and city governments view sport as an industry and reward industry leaders for high level performance, the situation will not change."
This does not, however, clear China of the responsibility of gaining control over drug use in the country. Whether or not this is possible. "is the question of the remainder of this decade."
Leonard concludes, "It's pretty clear that FINA could easily find out this stuff if they wanted to. That's where we want to start applying the pressure now."