All eyes were on the Chinese team when they arrived to compete at the World Championships in Perth last month. Only a year after their dismal showing at the Atlanta Olympics, they had shown a sudden and unbelievable recovery at the National Games last October in Shanghai. There was worldwide suspicion that, after seven positive drug tests in September 1994 at the Asian Games, and six more in January 1996, they were once again using performance-enhancing drugs.
The scene was set for mayhem at the slightest slip-up. But not in their wildest dreams was anyone prepared for the drama that was to unfold on January 8, 1998.
Ironically, on this same day, 100 years earlier, Alick Wickham had first swam his overarm "crawl" at Bronte, only a mile from where Sydney Airport now stands, and where a customs officer was to discover 13 vials of somatropin, a synthetic human growth hormone in the baggage of a 21-year-old Chinese swimmer, Yuan Yuan. The drug had been placed there by her coach, Zhewen Zhou, who claimed he hadn't enough space in his own luggage.
After the contents of the vials had been analyzed and their contents confirmed by the Australian Government Analytical Laboratory, Zhou was suspended from national and international competition for 15 years, and Yuan was banned for four years.
On the same day, 2500 miles to the west in Perth, another story was brewing. The first contingent of Chinese swimmers had already arrived, and were being spot tested by officials from the Australian Drug Agency, acting on behalf of FINA.
Six days later, another bomb shell dropped when it was announced that four swimmers, Luna Wang, Huijue Cai, Yi Zhang, and Wei Wang, had tested positive for the banned drug Triamterene, a diuretic used to mask steroid use. All four were temporarily suspended without a hearing pending confirmation of the B samples. China's good luck was that the four swimmers had not been caught with actual steroids in their systems that the diuretic seeks to dissimulate. Had this been the case, the entire country automatically would have been banned from international competition. However, FINA had decided at their 1995 congress that penalties for diuretic offenses would apply only to individuals, and carry a maximum two year ban.
The resultant media coverage of the drug scandals at the world championships in Perth was unimaginable. It quickly became a major international news story carried by newspapers worldwide, and viewed by millions on TV.
Not in their wildest dreams was anyone prepared for the drama that unfolded at the World Championships in Perth.
To the dismay of organizers, the meet threatened to become a fiasco even before it got started. Never in the history of competitive swimming has the sport received so much publicity, and most of it negative.
Every newspaper in Australia, from the most conservative to the tabloids, ran pages and pages on the developing scandals; in Europe and much of Asia, it was front page news in the sports sections of big metropolitan newspapers.
In China itself, little or nothing was said. Reporting was minimal in the United States and Canada, where swimming is a minor sport.
The clamour down under was not surprising. Many of Australia's top swimming journalists are either knowledgeable former swimmers, or people seeped in the traditions of their country's illustrious swimming history. They have long resented the insult to their intelligence caused by the continued and persistent cheating by Chinese swimmers with their large number of positive tests. Once the story broke, they dissected it to the very bones, often to the acute embarrassment of FINA's highest officials.
It seemed astonishing that, over the last four years, the Chinese had taken such small heed of world opinion as to continue brazenly along the reckless path that now has lead to widespread ostracism by their fellow competitors. A total of 28 Chinese swimmers have tested positive for banned substances, and one coach also has been suspended for 15 years. The (vast) majority of the cases have occurred over the last eight years. The combined total for the rest of the world is 33.
Many of the world's leading coaches and swimmers, including Olympians Mark Spitz, Murray Rose, Shane Gould, Jenny Thompson, Tracy Wickham, and many others, were outraged that the long-recognized drug problem in swimming had been allowed to fester for so long and become an open bleeding wound. For them, and many like them, this was a cry from the heart for the salvation of the sport. They called for the outright banning of China from all international swimming competitions. "They should be banned for ten years" said Mark Spitz, who had won a record seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Even Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the IOC, felt obliged to say that "persistent cases of doping by Chinese athletes hurt that country's hopes of one day holding the Olympics."(AP)
At this stage it is no use to delve too deeply into what was said in the midst of the uproar. There has been too much divisiveness in the sport already, largely as a result of the actions of those who persistently sought to flout the rules, and those in high places who likewise continued to protect them.
In fairness to FINA, however, it must be said that the amazing course of events, highlighted by the continued impudence of the offending swimmers, caught everyone unawares. And, to its credit, FINA has at last announced the formation of a task force of international experts in medical science, research, and forensics to strengthen its drug testing procedures. The team is to include experienced team doctors and administrators, and will hold its first meeting in Lausanne on March 5-6 where it will examine new testing methods, including random blood testing, in an effort to speed up the detection of HGH and erythropoietin (EPO.) FINA also promised to send a delegation to China in February to examine the issues and concerns raised by positive drug tests and to report back with recommendations on various subjects within six months of being appointed.
But even now, the story still simmers as the media and the swimming public wait for further developments in the midst of threatened boycotts of World Cup meets in China, that may not come to pass if FINA manages to dissuade the various parties from doing so. (For example, it is reported that Germany has done a backflip, and has now decided to participate.)
Nevertheless, the obvious need to urge the Chinese Swimming Association to establish control over the sport in its country remains even more pressing now than when seven of their swimmers tested positive in 1994. At that time, the Chinese authorities promised the visiting FINA commission to clean their house by "introducing strict punitive measures to discourage drug cheats," but now, four years later, the situation hasn't improved. In fact, with the first-time discovery of HGH in a swimmer's possession, the situation has worsened and needs to be urgently addressed and rectified. The Chinese Swimming Association needs to rid itself of the perception that they have been unfairly victimized. The serious problems they have are problems that they have brought upon themselves.
For a start, their drug testers should examine a little more carefully the dynamic curves caused by maximum peak performances (such as at their National Games), and the subsequent necessary "down time" needed to enable "target cells" to regenerate. Even better, they could discontinue these National Games, where reportedly large rewards are made to successful athletes, and where they inevitably swim faster than they do at the Olympics.
The demeaning aspect of the drug problem is the way it tends to drag the whole sport down. A large element of distrust exists in the sport, not only because of cheating, but because so many self-serving politicians and bureaucrats now hold sway.
The drug problem has caused acrimony and divisiveness, accusations and counter-accusations. The persistence of the drug pestilence in competitive swimming is destroying the integrity, the morale and the very fibre of our sport. Consider the suspicion that often greets an outstanding performance: Is this swim drug-tainted or not? This tendency is one of the worst side effects of the drug problem. Not so long ago, it was unthinkable that people could be cheating.
Contrary to what some have said about the media "tearing the house down," a great debt of gratitude is owed to those who have focussed attention on the fact that something is radically wrong with our sport. Their continued attention to the problem may yet help to turn the tide in swimming's fight for survival. The only ray of light that remains is that so many swimmers, even though there may be a cash reward at the end of the line, continue to develop their skills, strength and endurance, by natural means, rather than by resorting to performance-enhancing drugs. They continue to show the discipline, courage, faith and honour, that may yet reclaim the sport for those who still believe in its finer values.