China's doping history

Breaking down China’s latest doping revelations

Following a documentary on German television last month, the world’s media reported on allegations about China’s doping history, prompting an official reaction from WADA. But how much of this is actually new, what will – or can – WADA do about the claims and what does this mean for China’s future sporting ambitions? 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Doping is a sensitive subject that inevitably involves a lot of innuendo and assumption. The following is intended to start a debate by asking some valid questions about China’s doping history, rather than unnecessarily casting aspersions, so please read with that caveat in mind!]

Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, all the headlines focused on everything that was about to go wrong. From pollution and traffic to protests and censorship, the storylines were exactly what China had been hoping to avoid.

But then everyone was blown away by the extravagant Opening Ceremony and China never looked back. The country’s “coming out party on the world stage” was widely declared a success and China took the top honors with 51 golds – the first time any nation had passed the half century mark since the Soviets won 55 gold medals back in 1988.

But check the record books today and that’s not the total you will find.

After three female weightlifters were stripped of their 2008 gold medals earlier this year, that total has been revised downwards to 48. But – leaving all doping or ethical judgment aside – you could make a case that it was very much worth it for those ladies to dope, purely based on the giddiness with which the 2008 gold rush was received versus the comparative pin-drop silence surrounding the announcement of their three doping violations. In other words, they got away with it.

It’s hard to believe that China’s leading female lifters in the 48kg, 69kg and 75 kg categories all made a decision to dope independently of their coaches, especially given the “country first” mentality that Chinese athletes have historically had drilled into them.

“This very gold medal is dedicated to the people of my motherland. It is also dedicated to my dear mother who passed away not a long time ago.”

That’s the quote from Cao Lei, the 75kg competitor, showing that she actually referenced China before her recently departed mother – shocking to a western audience, but par for the course for many Chinese. Other examples of this phenomenon include an 18-year-old Zhou Hang criticized by a senior Chinese official at the 2010 Olympics for thanking her parents before the motherland after winning a gold medal.

The point is, these athletes are not like Lance Armstrong or Marion Jones, with strong personal brands to protect. Their brand is China itself, so individual athletes aren’t running the show here. Given that context, then, it’s valid to at least ask questions such as:

  • Were there more than just three of China’s 103 medalists (or 639 athletes) doping in 2008?
  • Were sports other than weightlifting involved?
  • Was this part of a wider campaign to ensure a successful home Olympics?

These questions matter, because, four years from now, China has another home Olympics and decisions will be taken about exactly how best to prepare their athletes. Again – leaving doping and ethical concerns aside – here is why that is a difficult decision.

Even if the hypothetical answers to these three questions above are “yes”, then the calculated gamble to dope was worth it as far as the country is concerned, with just three unknown weightlifters caught years later. But overdo it and end up like Russia14 stripped medals from 2008, 13 from 2012 (and counting), an expected avalanche from 2014 just starting to come out now – and it all comes crashing down, leaving the country’s sporting legacy in tatters.

This is why the reaction from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to the most recent doping claims do not bode at all well for China’s future sporting ambitions.

Everyone from the BBC and Sports Illustrated to AFP and the Irish Times reported on the documentary by German TV station ARD, broadcast on October 21 this year, which alleged systematic doping in China during the 1980s and 1990s. The claims center on testimony from Xue Yinxian, who worked with Chinese athletes in the national team training program. Some of the main points include:

  • More than 10,000 athletes were doping.
  • Children as young as 11 were told to take banned substances.
  • Boys aged 13-14 “grew breasts” due to the substances they were given.
  • Sports affected were:  football, volleyball, basketball, table tennis, badminton, track and field, swimming, diving, gymnastics and weightlifting.
  • Xue said “all international medals [from that period] should be withdrawn” due to the rampant nature of the doping program.

For those paying close attention – and rest assured, here at China Sports Insider, we do – it all sounded eerily familiar. That’s because this article in the Epoch Times from a month beforehand had pretty much the same information. Not only that, but we’ve heard from Dr Xue before, back in 2012 in John Garnaut’s Sydney Morning Herald piece, which had almost all the same revelations as the recent ARD documentary.

Here’s a list of some other articles over the past couple of years that have mentioned Xue and/or referenced her comments in that 2012 interview:

However, despite all these mentions in the media, WADA posted the following three-paragraph statement in response to the ARD documentary (lightly edited for brevity):

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has seen the documentary alleging systematic doping in China during the 1980s and 1990s; and, questioning whether such a system may have prevailed beyond these decades. The allegations were brought forward by former Chinese physician, Xue Yinxian, who is said to have looked after several national teams in China during the decades in question.

Xue has been telling the media this for at least five years! How on Earth is this only news to WADA now? If the claims warranted a response in the week after the broadcast, wasn’t she at least worth talking to at some point in the past half decade? Yet the phrasing – “who is said” – implies they’ve only just been alerted to her existence. It continues:

While WADA was only formed in November 1999 as the international, independent, agency tasked with combating doping in sport, the Agency will ensure that, if action is warranted and feasible under the World Anti-Doping Code (Code), the necessary and appropriate steps will be taken.  As a first step, the Agency has asked its independent Intelligence and Investigations (I&I) team to initiate an investigative process in order to collect and analyze available information in coordination with external partners.

Again, why wasn’t this done before? Is it WADA’s duty to investigate serious claims of doping, or only those claims that garner a certain amount of media attention? The word “feasible” here also has the undertones of covering their backsides and you can already hear the response being formulated: “this happened way before our time, nothing we can do, please move along…”

And finally:

The Code, which first came into being in 2003, is the core document that harmonizes anti-doping policies, rules and regulations across sports organizations and countries around the world. Prior to the Code, anti-doping efforts were disjointed and uncoordinated across sports and countries.

Translation: It took us four years to actually come up with a framework under we which work, so don’t expect anything to come of this.

It should be noted, however, that there is a limit to what WADA can actually do. Ultimately, it’s each sport’s governing bodies that enact the penalties for the transgressions, leaving WADA to do the testing, but it is ultimately toothless when it comes to punishment. Money, as usual, is the big evil here, with sporting bodies and national federations, often in cahoots with each other, driven by a fear of losing revenue to cover up doping incidents in the name of “protecting the sport”. It’s frustrating beyond belief, of course, that WADA – whose job it should be to protect sport – doesn’t have the power to do so.

But this is where it starts to get dangerous, given where we are in China’s Olympic cycle, because if there are no true deterrents against doping, why wouldn’t medal-hungry officials at least consider the use of PEDs?

For all the talk about abandoning the “gold at all costs” mentality, China is always keen to do well at home. While China has historically excelled only in the Summer Games, you can be sure that officials have already formulated a strategy to dramatically improve on past performances at the Winter Games. With fewer Winter Olympians being full-time professional athletes, it’s easier for a country with limitless resources to quickly achieve a world-class level. China knows that and will be keen to exploit any advantage available.

So how will Team China fare in Pyeongchang?

China's doping historyAfter failing to win any medals in the first three Winter Olympics entered, China has finished 15th (0 gold medals) in 1992, 19th (0) in 1994, 16th (0) in 1998, 13th (2) in 2002, 14th (2) in 2006, 7th (5) in 2010 and 12th (3) in 2014.

For Pyeongchang, the Gracenote Virtual Medal Table forecasts China will finish in 9th place – above Canada, stunningly, based on the number of gold medals – but with fewer than 80 days to go, we’ll soon see what kind of progress China has made in winter sports. However, when there is talk that China hopes to win a medal in ice hockey – ludicrous given the current standards – that tells you what kind of targets have already been discussed.

The sports that Dr Xue mentions are all Summer sports and while her allegations date back a number of years, more recently China has had well reported problems in at least weightlifting and swimming. But from Ma’s army of super-human runners to the swimmers who took the world by storm for all the wrong reasons at the 1994 World Championships, China’s doping past makes it inevitable that questions will continue to be asked in the future.

Which path will China choose?

There are three main reasons why a country might having athletes who dope:

  1. Coordinated doping across sports, overseen from above.
  2. Restricted within one or more particular sports, with coaches calling the shots.
  3. Isolated incidents by rogue individuals.

While Russia’s recent past has placed it in category 1 and the majority of other countries are in category 3, China would appear to be somewhere between category 2 (see weightlifting and swimming incidents discussed above) and category 3. In those two sports, for example, with young athletes under strict supervision, category 2 is far more likely than category 3.

It’s impossible to know at what levels these decisions are taken, but given what we know about the top-down Olympic programs, it’s likely that they are taken at a higher level in China than in many other countries. Every nation has doping issues, but China’s doping history appears to be more coordinated and more strategic, rather than simply rogue individuals getting busted. That is what has happened in the past, so it’s reasonable to ask whether that will happen in the future.

The question then is – what will the strategy be for 2022? Will China be clean or not? The worry is that, with WADA’s response giving the signal that it’s not tough on doping, it effectively incentivizes countries like China to dope. Will the temptation to perform well on home ice and snow will prove too much for officials to resist?

Let’s hope not, because when it all comes out – as it surely would – the damage done to China’s nascent sports industry would be irreparable. China is increasingly using sport as a vehicle for soft power, but that image could be forever tarnished if officials decide to gamble on doping once again.

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