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SEPTEMBER 18, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 11

Zou Qing/AFP.
Controversial Chinese women's track coach Ma Junren is in hot water after all but one of his runners were booted off the Olympic team when authorities carried out drug tests.

Rocky Road
China wants to make very, very sure that there will be no positive tests at Sydney. —Nils Lindstedt, International Doping Tests and Management

It wasn't supposed to happen like this. the long-distance runners who had dutifully swallowed their turtle's-blood tonic and sweated it out on the oxygen-thin Tibetan plateau, were favored in the 5,000-m race. The mighty rowers and canoeists were expected to dominate Sydney's clear waters, as were a posse of powerful swimmers. The Chinese Olympic team was ready to burn, baby, burn.

The People's Republic will not be taking home as many medals as the Russians or the Americans. But the world's biggest country is also the nation most emblematic of what the Olympics is all about: triumph, adulation, respectability, the chance to stand taller in the eyes of the world. Each individual victory is multiplied by the millions (or in China's case, hundreds of millions) of citizens who salute the same flag. That's why governments pour money into training and developing their top-flight athletes, why ordinary folks wake up in the middle of the night to watch men and women catapult themselves into the air using long, springy poles.

And perhaps that's why, just a week before the Games are set to start, much of China's fearsome Olympic squad has burned out. Late last month, anti-doping officials in Sydney announced that they had finally approved a revolutionary blood and urine test for synthetic epo, or Erythropoietin, a banned substance that boosts endurance by as much as 15%. A week later, in a terse overnight bulletin, Beijing announced it had trimmed its 311-member Olympic team by nearly 10% because of injuries, uninspired training performances—and, oh yes, positive results from a last-minute slew of in-house drug tests. All told, 14 track-and-field athletes, seven rowers, four swimmers and two canoeists were told to stay home.

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TIMEasia, TIMEeurope, TIMEpacific and bring you our take on the first Olympics of the new millennium

On the eve of the Sydney Games, China suspends several athletes for, you got it, illegal drug use

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This is all hugely embarrassing for a nation still trying to overcome a scandalous doping history. Ever since their suspiciously sudden entry into the record books in the early 1990s, Chinese athletes—like the East Germans before them—have been tainted by the specter of drugs. The most egregious incident occurred in 1994, when 11 athletes were unceremoniously booted out of the Asian Games in Hiroshima after testing positive for steroid use. Despite Beijing's vow to wean its athletes off drugs, four swimmers were busted at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, and another was caught trying to transport vials of human growth hormone through customs. "The Chinese totally lost credibility with that lack of judgment," says Don Talbot, skipper of Australia's swim team. "Who can believe them anymore?"

Much of the suspicion has focused on controversial women's track coach Ma Junren, and last week's hammer blow (all but one of his runners were booted off the Olympic team) is in part a sign that his star has finally fallen. As early as 1997 and '98, frustrated by his penchant for unauthorized corporate sponsorships, China's sports authorities testily barred Ma's athletes from top-flight meets. During that same period, allegations leaked out that Ma had apparently hoarded most of the team's winnings from international meets in order to build a glitzy training center. Authorities no longer blindly accepted Ma's boast that high-altitude training on the Tibetan plateau and a curious diet of worm fungus and turtle's blood were solely responsible for his successes. "Ma should have been more transparent about his training style," chides Wang Xinzhai, an official of the Chinese Track and Field Association.

Beijing's decision to come clean about this latest doping debacle may also be a sign that officials realize drug-tainted medals just aren't worth it. In recent months, China has conducted more than 2,000 out-of-competition doping tests in an effort to catch cheats before they make it to Sydney. In July, 200-m individual medley world record holder Wu Yanyan was barred from swimming at the Games after testing positive for steroids. National champion race walker Liu Yunfeng was dropped that same month for failing drug tests. "My guess is that China wants to make very, very sure that there will be no positive tests at Sydney," says Nils Lindstedt, chief China representative for International Doping Tests and Management. "They can't afford any more bad press."

Much more is at stake than a potential loss of face, given that China is desperate to host the 2008 Olympics. Beijing's failure in 1993 to nab the 2000 Games infuriated its sports-crazed authorities. Backed by International Olympic Committee chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Chinese thought the 2000 bid would be a cakewalk. So did Samaranch, who underestimated the importance ioc members would place on China's lousy human rights record. When Beijing lost its Olympic bid by a mere two votes, it cried foul. But a rash of positive doping tests the next year surely erased any sympathy the world might have had. Beijing has gone all out to avenge that humiliating defeat: city planners have launched a building spree, constructing a new airport, beefing up road and rail links and promising a 1,215-hectare Olympic Park. "We are determined that our bid will be successful this time," Beijing vice mayor Liu Jingmin said recently. "We want to show that we can succeed in hosting this great event."

China's obsession with excelling in sports, however, means the nation's athletes may not be quite ready to go straight yet. Between 1978 and '88, the national sports budget increased by more than 200%. Scouts scoured schools for youngsters to mold for the national cause. East German doctors and coaches were brought in to help the "sick man of Asia" find its muscles, even if it meant a dose or two of steroids. At the National Games in 1993, China's women runners, including Ma's protEgEs, broke an astounding six world records. Yet the taste of success only served to whet appetites for more glory. In 1988, each of the five gold medals China won at Seoul cost it $52 million, compared with just $9 million spent by the South Koreans. By the time the Atlanta Games rolled around, China's gold medal count had ballooned to 16. Still, the nation's fans clamored for more.

No wonder, then, that taking drugs has been viewed as a relatively easy path to success—especially when so many banned substances aren't subject to testing at the Olympics. "The pressure to win is so big that China isn't going to give up drugs," says a retired assistant running coach for China's 1996 Olympic team. "Instead, it will focus on how to outsmart the tests." There's also a sense in China's sporting community that the nation is being unfairly singled out as a drug pariah. Two days after China cut its 27 disgraced athletes, the state press trumpeted news that Canadian hammer thrower Robin Lyons and equestrian Eric Lamaze were barred from Sydney because of drug use (while the day before conveniently burying news of China's own drug scandal on page 5 of the official People's Daily).

Despite the finger-pointing, China hopes that its good-faith gesture in reporting drug cheats will pay off when the ioc decides who will host the 2008 Games. "We want to uphold the fairness of the Olympics," says the Chinese Track and Field Association's Wang. The nation also is banking on other athletes—notably its gymnastics, diving and table-tennis representatives—to prove to the world that it doesn't need drugs to win. But doping busts in power events like swimming and track have a way of tainting China's successes in sports that rely more on finesse. "China's athletes have a big historical burden to overcome," says anti-doping expert Lindstedt. The nation may need something stronger than a shot of steroids to outrun its dubious sporting past.

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