Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Poison in the pool: why the latest Chinese doping row is proving so toxic

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It has been a week since the New York Times and the German TV channel ARD broke the news that 23 Chinese swimmers had tested positive for trace amounts of the banned performance-enhancing drug trimetazidine (TMZ) in the run-up to the last Olympic Games, and public ripples we have seen since are only the visible tip of a wave of feeling running through the sport.

The larger part is below the surface, where there is widespread anger, exasperation and disillusionment at the way the 23 were allowed to compete at the Games anyway after an investigation by their national doping agency, Chinada, found the results were caused by kitchen contamination.

Three of them went on to win gold medals. One, Wang Shun, finished just 0.28sec ahead of Duncan Scott in the 200m individual medley. Both men are among the favourites again this year. “Give Slam his gold medal now,” Scott’s friend and team-mate James Guy posted on X when the story broke (Slam is Scott’s nickname).

Scott was one of a group of swimmers who has taken a public stand over doping before, when he refused to shake hands with another Chinese swimmer, Sun Yang, at the world championships in 2019, because Yang had his own doping case hanging over him. There is talk that there will be more podium protests in Paris.

It could get more heated. Sun, who had previously been banned for three months after testing positive for TMZ himself, has only just finished a separate four-year suspension. He has said he wants to compete at the Olympics. He missed the Chinese trials, which took place this week, but so long as he makes the qualifying time (and he says he has been training every day) he would be eligible for discretionary selection by the Chinese federation.

Guy is one of the few athletes willing to state in public what a lot of people in swimming will only say in private. Sound carries over water and you don’t need to strain your ears to pick up the whispers on the pool deck. Athletes who have been told their entire lives that they are strictly responsible for everything in their bodies have all of a sudden learned that they have been up against swimmers who were allowed to compete, despite testing positive for trace levels of TMZ. Both Chinada and the World Anti-Doping Agency were satisfied that they fell below the level at which they could be considered performance enhancing – the Chinese authorities said it meant intentional doping was “impossible”. Questions remain, though, about how exactly the contamination occurred.

Guy’s teammate Adam Peaty joined in, although his own comments on X were aimed at Wada’s handling of the case. Peaty publicly backed Scott’s protest in 2019. If he is going to win gold in Paris he will need to beat one of the 23, Qin Haiyang, who swept the three breaststroke events at the world championships in Fukuoka last year.

Ye Shiwen’s 2012 gold medal was questioned by many people. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The story isn’t just about the athletes’ wavering faith in Wada’s ability to police their sport, or World Aquatics’ ability to run it, but also to the long, and ongoing, uneasy relationship between Chinese swimming and their competitors from around the world. This stretches back to the late 1980s, before most of these swimmers were even born. It was then that a group of three coaches who had worked in East Germany’s state-sponsored doping regime were sent by their government to help set up new high-performance training programmes in China.

Over the next decade, Chinese swimmers won an unprecedented number of medals in major events, and also failed an unprecedented number of drugs tests. More than half of all the recorded doping cases in elite swimming during the 1990s involved Chinese swimmers. Seven of them came at one competition, the Asian Games in Hiroshima 1994. More should have followed at the world championships in Perth 1998, when one of the team was caught smuggling 13 vials of human growth hormone through customs. It was enough to supply the entire Chinese team, but only one swimmer, and one coach, was punished.

This went beyond the isolated doping cases that occurred in other countries, which were confined to individual athletes or training groups. The World Swimming Coaches Association was so alarmed by the size of the problem that it started petitioning the sport’s governing body, which was then known as Fina, to take action. Fina, was, at best, hopelessly inept, and it repeatedly pushed back against the suggestion that there was a problem. Members of the WSCA were told they were “paranoid” and described as “troublemakers”. Chinese officials accused them of Sinophobia and racism, hypocrisy, and ignorance of Chinese swimming culture.

Adam Peaty has criticised Wada’s handling of the Chinese swimmers who tested positive at the 2021 Games. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Expect these same arguments to be made again in the coming months, focusing in particular on western athletes’ widespread use of therapeutic use exemptions, which grant permission to take medically necessary performance-enhancing drugs. The Australian coach Denis Cotterell, who is based in China, has already given an interview explaining that outsiders don’t understand the team’s culture. Which may be true. As the bioethicist Maxwell Mehlman wrote in The Price of Perfection: “In effect China has replaced East Germany as the target of western condemnation of state sponsored doping”. It was easy, Mehlman wrote, for the western press to portray China as “The Big Red Machine”.

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Cotterell also spoke about the fear and sacrifices he said his swimmers had to make to avoid eating contaminated food. “People who come to China know contamination is an issue,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate aspect of being here … I am happy to say I’m absolutely in support of my swimmers and dispute any suggestion of anything orchestrated.”

The Chinese press, meanwhile, simply didn’t cover the cases at all. In the 1990s it was often reported that the athletes who had tested positive were simply injured. The swimmers were often entirely oblivious to the fact they were committing doping violations, because they were blindly following their coaches and medics. This lack of information meant they were almost surprised to find that the wider community was so suspicious. Professors Haozhou Pu and Michael Giardina have convincingly argued that the Chinese authorities actively stoke this persecution complex: “The importance of the Olympic Games to China is no longer limited to performing an image of ‘victor’ to the world: it paradoxically also functions to portray an autonomous ‘victim’ profile to Chinese citizens.”

You could see this in 2012, when the 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen won the gold medal in women’s 400m individual medley in a world record of 4min 28.43sec. It was a second faster than the old mark and a full five faster than her own personal best from before the competition. No one had ever seen anything quite like her last 100m of freestyle and, that night, the Olympic village hummed with talk about Ye’s performance. There were plenty of people there who were happy to gossip about it, but only one, a US coach called John Leonard, who was willing to go on the record.

He told the Guardian he thought Ye’s performance was literally unbelievable. “I use that word in its precise meaning. At this moment it is not believable to many people in swimming.” Ye denied doing anything wrong and described Leonard as “unprofessional”. He was pilloried on social media for expressing out loud the same doubts other coaches and athletes held. In the end, almost 150 athletes from the London Games were found guilty of doping violations and 42 were stripped of medals. Ye was not one of them.

Leonard was accused of hypocrisy, racism, and of bullying a 16-year-old girl. But his target wasn’t really Ye. He was speaking from years of bitter experience in his sport. He was honouring a promise to speak up that he had made to himself in the 1980s, when he had watched in suspicious silence as the East Germans systematically corrupted his sport. He was part of a generation who had fought, and lost, a battle to make the sport scrupulously clean. They felt foiled by what they regarded as a system staffed by too many weak and conflicted administrators, working for opaque and unaccountable governing bodies.

That was the last generation. The worry is the latest one is beginning to feel exactly the same way.

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