Dive into history: when Chinese doping mirrored East Germany’s systematic program
The similarities could not be ignored. Sudden and massive drops over time. A revolving frame of new names. Deep voices. Extraordinary bodybuilding. And, perhaps most importantly, whispers around the bridge.
Just as East German women emerged from obscurity in the early 1970s and embarked on a nearly two-decade reign, Chinese women emerged in the 1990s to shake up the sports hierarchy. It was eventually proven, through government-supervised documents, that East Germany was running a systematic doping program in which teenage girls were fed and injected with steroids to build a superpower athletic program.
There has never been concrete evidence of a systematic program in China, but dramatic individual improvements and specific periods of dominance suggest the use of artificial support. Add to that the numerous positive doping violations that have been recorded over the decade, and only willful ignorance would deny that Chinese efforts in the 1990s were achieved by dishonest means.
At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, China was only a secondary consideration, winning four medals – three silver and one bronze. Although this total did not attract widespread attention, it is a significant improvement from the previous two world championships in which China participated. In the 1984 Olympics, which featured a thin field due to the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc boycott, China did not win a single medal in the pool.
Another empty performance was recorded at the 1986 World Championships, but there was more to the story than just the failure to miss the podium. In the events in which the country had entries, the Chinese athletes achieved times far from world class and placed among the bottom of the field. However, in two years, there was China with four Olympic medalists, and finalists in several other events.
The first signs of a dirty operation had surfaced.
If the 1988 Olympics served as an escape, the 1991 World Championships and the 1992 Olympics confirmed that China would not disappear, but rather become a presence in international waters. After China won four gold, one silver and one bronze medals at the World Championships, the Barcelona Olympics won nine medals – four titles and five silver medals. Moreover, world records began to fall into the hands of the country’s athletes.
Although suspicions about Chinese performance have intensified, the opposition has been cautious about speaking out publicly and bringing accusations of performance-enhancing drug use. However, this half-hearted approach changed at the 1994 World Championships, where China were unstoppable and looked just as unbeatable as the East Germans at the peak of their doping schedule. In Rome, China won 12 of the 16 events.
As China beat the competition, disgust grew among coaches and athletes. One of the first big names to accuse China of orchestrating a systematic doping program was Denis Pursley, the manager of the United States national team. Watching China sweep the women’s relays and set multiple world records was too much for Pursley to bear.
“I think you have to be incredibly naive to ignore circumstantial evidence,” Pursley said. “The current situation is an exact replica of (East Germany), and it deprives deserving athletes of the attention and success they deserve. We can no longer put our heads in the sand and pretend that what we know is happening is not happening Our athletes just aren’t buying it this time Common sense tells you that our athletes are not going to make the major sacrifices necessary to compete at this level when they know that everything is against them. I have great respect for the skill of the Chinese coaches. I also have great respect for the dedication of their athletes, but that alone cannot explain how they have been able to improve everything so much a bunch of swimmers in the waves, just like the East Germans. The ones here are different from the ones in Barcelona, and we probably won’t see the same (athletes) in Atlanta.
It was no surprise that China vehemently denied the doping allegations it faced, but the success the country enjoyed ran contrary to common sense. One of the main defenses used by China and its supporters was the country’s population and the statistical opportunity to find top athletes in a country of over a billion people.
But China had long had a population that surpassed its rivals, so why wasn’t there a success story? Cheng Yun Peng, national technical director of the Chinese Swimming Association, explained that the country has superb coaches and elite training facilities that enable its swimmers to excel. The reasoning was not accepted.
Prior to the 1995 Pan Pacific Championships, the swimming federations of the United States, Australia, Japan and Canada voted to exclude China from competition. The unit has demonstrated a concerted effort to shed light on doping issues in sport, and to specifically highlight anomalies in China’s performance.
“People are suspicious because we are getting stronger very quickly,” Cheng said. “The first thing is maybe we haven’t helped others understand how hard we train. The second thing is maybe there are sour grapes. The third thing is that during many many years, there has only been Europe and America in swimming, no Chinese, and they can’t stand being caught up with them. Maybe it’s a kind of racism, and that makes us angry, we Chinese. We learned from the Americans, the Australians, the Germans, the Hungarians, the Russians, everyone. And we developed a system that we thought would work for us. Most swimmers in other countries I’ve seen here are not very strong. Speed depends on power, and power depends on a muscular body. The problem is that big muscles create misunderstandings. As soon as someone sees them, they think about doping.
Cheng may have tried to deflect suspicion with his words, but he couldn’t alter the results of some doping tests that came back positive at the 1994 Asian Games, which took place a month after the World Championships. . At the Asian Games, 11 positive tests were returned by Chinese athletes, including world champion swimmers Lu Bin and Yang Aihua. At least the news confirmed the suspicions of Pursley and China’s haters.
However, with the 1996 Olympics fast approaching, a senior member of the International Olympic Committee was unwilling to criticize China, even though clear evidence was available to him. Belgium Prince Alexander of Merodethe chairman of the IOC’s Medica Commission, defended China’s positive doping tests at the Asian Games as falling within the usual guidelines.
“The Chinese had a delegation of 500 athletes in the Asian Games, and around 10 positive cases, that’s not such a high percentage,” de Merode said. “There are no more cases in China than elsewhere. These are epidemics that occur on occasion. There is no systematic doping policy in China.
When the 1996 Olympics opened, China feared to dominate on the same level as at the 1994 World Championships. In the end, China won six medals in Atlanta, fueled by The Jingyi winning gold in the 100m freestyle and silver in the 50m freestyle. The huge drop in medal count from the 1994 World Championships to the 1996 Olympics is likely due to China knowing it was being watched closely and not taking the same steps as Rome. Of course, the 1996 Games featured michelle smiththe Irishwoman who went from runner to Olympic champion.
China’s cautious approach has not been respected a year later, however, because Wu Yanian shattered the world record in the 200m individual medley at the Chinese National Games. Wu took almost two seconds off the previous world record, set by her compatriot Lin Li at the 1992 Olympics. Although Wu did not test positive during her heyday, a doping test in 2000 revealed the use of anabolic steroids.
With Wu’s medley standard once again raising questions, China arrived at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, Australia, under the microscope, and the country did nothing to convince the world they were competing fairly. . During a customs check, the baggage of Yuan Yuan, double medalist at the 1994 world championships, contained vials of human growth hormone (HGH). The amount of HGH seized from Yuan was enough to supply the entire Chinese roster for the duration of the World Championships. Meanwhile, four Chinese swimmers have failed doping tests in Perth, with their samples containing a masking agent often taken to conceal steroid use.
Although China is not obsessed with the same issues it faced in the 1990s, when it had nearly 30 positive doping tests, it has not escaped frequent accusations and positive tests. Prior to the London 2012 Olympic Games, Li Zhesi was disqualified from the Games for a positive doping test. In London, Ye Shiwen won gold medals in the 200m individual medley and 400m individual medley, his performance in the longest event being heavily questioned when his last lap was faster than the last lap Ryan Lochte displayed when winning the men’s version of the event.
Meanwhile, ace distance Sun Yang, a multiple-time Olympic champion, received an eight-year ban in early 2020 (later reduced) for tampering with a doping sample. The incident followed Sun’s earlier suspension for taking a banned drug he said was intended to treat heart disease.
Given its history of doping and the secretive nature of China and its sports programs, whenever an athlete achieves a sensational performance or quickly emerges as a world star, questions are going to be asked and doubts are going to arise.
“History shows there have been problems,” said John Leonard, the former executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association. “When you have a history of doping like China, there are doubts.”