My medicine cabinet has never been very well stocked. Its contents rarely
exceed a bottle of aspirin, something for a stuffy nose, an antiseptic ointment
and some rubbing alcohol.
For those of us whose drug use doesn't go beyond such friendly and well-known
drugs as Tylenol and Neo-Citran (or their equivalents), it is difficult
to imagine drinking a potion of dessicated caterpillars. Or how about powdered
rhinoceros horn? And yet there are millions of people in China who can and
do, because such seemingly outlandish remedies are part of a centuries-old
tradition of Chinese medicine.
It is now well known that the issue of drug use in sport in China is complicated
by the fact that Chinese medicine is a vast grey area in medical research.
Indeed, synthetic steroids and performance - enhancers are not the only
problem, as many of the Chinese traditional cures, herbal and otherwise,
contain numerous and undocumented banned substances.
John Leonard, vice-president of the World Swimming Coaches Association,
did some homework on the subject during his visit to China and Hong Kong
last November. "The medical community, the coaches, and the athletes
have a difficult time understanding the "Western" view of these
substances as bad," he says. In China it is common practice to consume
teas made from powdered horn and animal penis to improve both sexual and
physical performance. "I saw multiple examples of this in every pharmacy,
on every block in Hong Kong," says Leonard. "Dried deer penis
is sold for up to $800 US per item ... Hong Kong researchers have confirmed
that such concoctions have very high levels of hormones present, and anyone
taking these regularly will test very high for steroids."
As Leonard maintains, it is a short leap from these traditional medicines
to using artificial steroids and performance - enhancers. It is clear that
when doctors don't understand that what they are doing is illegal in an
athletic context, the cultural gap is wide, and the possibilities of administering
(and taking) banned substances enormous. Leonard reports that synthetic
steroids, like the traditional medicines, are legal in both Hong Kong and
China. They are used extensively by those with sexual failure problems and
constitute a vigorous industry. "You cannot understand this until you
understand the incredible "cult of the penis" that exists throughout
Asia," he adds. "Anything that aids sexual performance is not
going to go away or be declared illegal."
Patricia Young of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong writes that
"although the international code of restricted drugs for athletes is
exhaustive, no commercially available Chinese medicines are listed, even
though the components of many of these traditional cures are at the top
of the banned list." The fact that Chinese medicines are implicated
in the positive tests of some Chinese athletes raises the question of whether
or not these preparations will be looked at more closely.
Dr. Ken Fitch, an IOC medical member for Austral-asia, told Young that the
IOC does not do the research. "It's really up to the Chinese to do
their own homework," he says.
That, of course, is a lot to ask, when the majority of Chinese practitioners
and pharmacists don't have a notion of what "banned" substances
are. The lack of government regulation of the contents of traditional Chinese
medicines adds to the problem of where to begin, because no one really knows
what goes into the various preparations. Even medicines such as ginseng
are currently under fire as unacceptable "ergogenic promoters."
Clearly, in a country where performance-enhancers are consumed with such
regularity by the general population, the morality of drug use in sport
will not be viewed with the same concern as in the West. Unfortunately,
be it East or West, it is only too human to want to take the easiest route
to the end result, to do whatever it takes to facilitate a task. A trait
that doesn't mix well with the artificial ideal of "fair play"
that we have constructed in sport, and seem determined, against all odds,
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