China's athletes test clean even as nation pumps out the steroids

CHANGCHUN, China — Barely a decade ago, allegations that China juiced its top athletes flourished. After all, dozens tested positive in the 1990s, and when new anti-doping procedures arrived before the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, China suddenly decided to leave 40 athletes at home.

The mood is different now. China pledges to host the cleanest Olympic Games ever this summer, and a state-of-the-art anti-doping lab is set up to enforce the pledge.

These days, China's elite athletes don't flinch at anti-doping tests. If there were a competition for cleaning up athletic programs, China could vie for a gold medal. Rarely has a national sports program appeared to turn around so dramatically.

But China also is in competition for a more dubious honor: world champion producer of doping substances. Its factories have become the biggest suppliers of anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, insulin growth factor and other performance-enhancing substances to the world. It's a paradoxical situation: The elite athletes no longer test positive, but the country is awash in factories that pump out the bad stuff.

How China has cleaned up, or whether it has simply gotten better at avoiding detection, goes beyond the realm of sports to broader issues. If Chinese athletes win a slew of medals this summer, and the world believes they are clean, it would underscore that China plays by global rules and that its national strength should be respected in a key area of prestige.

Chinese Olympics officials have confidently set the bar high. After all, not a single Chinese athlete tested positive for doping in the 2004 Athens Summer Games.

"The Chinese team that will take part in the 2008 Beijing Games is dope-free," Deputy Sports Minister Cui Dalin affirmed recently at a news conference.

Drug tests will become a more prevalent feature of the Aug. 8-24 Summer Games. China's anti-doping lab plans 4,500 tests, 25 percent more than in Athens, and 90 percent more than in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Organizers will test the four top competitors of each event, as well as two other competitors chosen at random.

Such testing was China's bane in the 1990s, when its athletes — especially its swimmers and track and field stars_ were repeatedly snared for doping violations.

Chinese swimmers rose spectacularly onto the world stage in the 1990s — and fell almost as dramatically. Female swimmers from China won 12 of 16 gold medals at a 1994 world championship in Rome, only to have 11 test positive to anabolic steroid use. In 1998 championships in Perth, Australia, four Chinese swimmers were suspended for doping, and one was caught with enough human growth hormone for the entire team.

Suspicions about doping left the reputation of China's sports authorities in tatters.

"They were demonized. They were attacked," said Susan Brownell, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and a former world-class track-and-field competitor and expert on China's sports program. "I personally think that what happened to China is that they were not as good and sophisticated at avoiding positive tests."

China's doping practices were far more haphazard than in the former East Germany, where doping of athletes was state policy to build national prowess, she said.

Rather, coaches turned to doping because they believed that China's' major competitors were also giving athletes performance-enhancing drugs.

After years of embarrassing doping scandals, China launched an anti-doping crackdown in the run-up to 2001, when it was bidding for the 2008 Games.

"I think on the whole they are cleaner now, and if there is anyone doping, they are smarter, too," said Brownell, who is in China for a sabbatical year doing research on the Olympics.

Authorities in China tested 10,000 athletes last year, reaching "one-quarter to one-third of all professional athletes," said Zhao Jian, the deputy director of the China Anti-Doping Agency. Zhao said his agency was set up last year under direct control of the central government and is free of pressures from the national Olympics committee or sports ministry. "This is a big change," he said.

One scholar says just as China moved forcefully in the past decade to make air travel safer after a series of accidents, it has acted quickly to reduce doping among elite athletes.

"When the national reputation is truly at stake, the Chinese leaders come around," said Dali Yang, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. After the doping scandals in the 1990s, "they really decided to do something about it with tremendous urgency."

Some of China's past critics still have doubts. John Leonard, head of the American Swimming Coaches Association, suspects that China is involved in genetic experimentation with swimmers. Since 2005, Leonard has charged publicly that 50 of China's best young swimmers were separated out and sent into a secret program to prepare for the 2008 Games.

"We have seen them in major Chinese meets where the other coaches pretend not to know who they are or who coaches them," Leonard said in an e-mail. "It's still a mystery."

When it comes to dispelling doubts, "the tendency by the Chinese press to refer to 'secret weapons' also doesn't help," said Yang, who recently co-wrote a scholarly paper on sports doping in China.

Yang noted that the dramatic drop in medals won at international competitions by Chinese swimmers indicates that China may be focusing on sports where their athletes excel without doping, such as gymnastics and table tennis.

Not all Chinese athletes stay off the pills, patches and injections. Some at lower levels still juice, experts said. Bicycle messengers deliver anabolic steroids to their doors.

But it is gym rats and athletes abroad who propelled China's pharmaceutical and chemical industries into the champion's circle of performance-enhancing substances production, making China the preferred peddler to the world's athletes.

Following a global crackdown last September known as Operation Raw Deal, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration identified 37 Chinese factories that appear to provide the bulk of the world's doping substances.

The compounds include human growth hormone (HGH), which was created to help stunted children but which athletes found also builds muscle mass and accelerates recovery.

"Chinese manufactured growth hormone is widely available and much cheaper," said Peter H. Sonksen, an endocrinologist in London who has designed tests to detect human growth hormone in athletes.

In an industrial park in this city in northeast China, a bio-pharmaceutical plant called GeneScience claims to make two-thirds of China's human growth hormone.

U.S. prosecutors indicted its U.S.-educated founder, Jin Lei, last September for sending outlawed human growth hormone to middlemen in the United States, and Jin faces a possible 20-year prison term if convicted. When visitors arrived at the headquarters, they received a terse message.

"You are currently not welcome," a publicist surnamed Chen said.

Last October, China's watchdog State Food and Drug Administration said it would limit export of the drugs, which are legal in China, to countries where authorities explicitly agree to each importation.

The chief medical officer for the Olympic team of Hong Kong, which fields a team separate from China, said he believes that senior officials are sincere in trying to clean up the use of drugs and to limit the export of the substances.

"At least people in high echelons have a commitment to stamp out doping," said Dr. Julian W. Chang, the Hong Kong medical officer. "What people do at lower levels is not all that clear."

(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Di contributed to this report. )

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