SWIMNEWS ONLINE: March 1996 Magazine Articles

Shopping Media Kit Trial Issue Swim Camp Directory


Karin Helmstaedt

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, to maintain.

Home | E-Mail | Top of Page | Mar 96 Contents | Magazine
Mag Archives | Calendar | World Rankings | Meet Results | Links to Sites
Photo Library | Biographies | Forums | Shopping | Classifieds

COPYRIGHT © 1995-1998 SWIMNEWS MAGAZINE, All Rights Reserved.
URL: http://swimnews.com