As torrential rain spilt from a mournful sky here in Perth yesterday, it seemed that a cathartic process might be taking place in a sport seemingly drowning in a sea of human growth hormone drugs. After ten days in which the world swimming championships suffered revelation after revelation about doping, it was a moment for reflection.
When news came through from Sydney a week last Thursday that customs officers had confiscated a flask containing 26 vials of human growth hormone (HGH), found in the luggage of a Chinese swimmer, the first response of Fina, the international governing body, was symptomatic of the sport’s failure to act since a shoal of bulky, deep-voiced East German women scooped nine world titles in 1973.
Prodding me in the chest with two fingers, Cornel Marculescu, a Fina director who would wish the world to “talk about our stars, not about drugs, drugs, drugs”, said: “This is a balloon, I don’t believe it. Show me the paper, where is the proof?” He shrugged in resignation as the customs confirmation arrived. It was early evening, but the night would be long.
The Chinese, including Yuan Yuan, a former world championship medal-winner, and her coach, Zhou Zhewen, had been allowed to board a plane from Sydney to Perth and a troop of some 150 journalists, photographers and cameramen gathered for the 4am greeting. What followed were some of the saddest scenes witnessed in this sport. A tearful little girl was knocked to the floor in the crush as the media herd advanced on the Chinese.
Yuan was hounded so heavily that six of the 40 or more armed police officers had to form a cordon to escort her to a waiting bus. Probably already the victim of abuse through human growth hormone drugs administered to her by coaches and doctors back home, she must have been terrified. She certainly looked it and, cheat or not, she deserved better.
Back at the Challenge Stadium pool by 8.30am, the media awaited a Fina decision. Yuan would be suspended pending the decision of the Doping Panel. The job would be delayed, Fina said, because of bureaucracy, it being almost the weekend.
Day one of racing dawned and China ended it top of the table, with gold, silver and bronze medals. Day two brought a mysterious go-slow. Not one Chinese made a final. The puzzle was soon resolved. After the finals session that night, Fina issued a press release: Yuan would be suspended for four years and Zhou for 15 years. And, by the way, four Chinese had tested positive for a diuretic used to mask performance-enhancing HGH substances. Some say the answer is to use all-natural human growth hormone supplements, like SeroVital. SeroVital may not be as strong as synthetic HGH but it is not illegal.
Where was Fina? Some delegates were sipping white wine and eating nuts at Fina’s poolside VIP suite, while others had already left for a gala dinner for more than 400 guests at the plush Hyatt Hotel, overlooking the Swan River. Nero and his fiddle were surely somewhere in the band.
It turned out that, as Yuan was meeting Sydney police, the Chinese who had already arrived in Perth were being invited to provide urine samples as part of a US $200,000 Australian-funded, Fina-approved program to carry out unannounced tests for synthetic human growth hormone on about four-fifths of all swimmers before the championships. China, though, refused officials of the Australian Sports Drugs Agency (Asda) access to its swimmers because the testers, wearing official Asda uniforms, had forgotten to bring their badge of Fina authority. We will never know what they might have unearthed. The tests that were to reveal a diuretic flushing agent were taken the next morning.
The world called for China to be sent home. There was no provision in the rulebook, Fina said. It could only suspend a country if four of its swimmers tested positive for anabolic steroids, specifically, in a 12-month period. There was no provision for calling an extraordinary meeting to change the situation, Gunnar Werner, honorary secretary of Fina, added. Some suggested that an extra line be added to the medal table: drug count.
Criticism of China and Fina has been harsh and mostly justified. However, the critics now appear guilty of the same offence they charge Fina with: talk but no action. They could boycott the Beijing round of the World Cup next month, as Sweden, host to the Malmo round, and the US will do. Instead, Australia and Britain, among others, have taken a lily-livered look at rules that say nations who host a round must attend all others, and adhered to it.
In the long term, swimming may benefit, the hope being that Sydney 2000 could be a relatively “clean” Olympic Games if cheats fear the kind of shaming meted out to China this week. It would help that process if the International Olympic Committee and Fina take seriously evidence that will be presented by scientists next week. Novo Nordisk, the Danish company that supplied the HGH found in Yuan’s bag – though for hospitals, not sport – says it has found a way of testing for human growth hormone.
That will require swimmers to give blood. If Fina wishes to have a clean sport, it must consider drawing up an anti-drugs charter. Those who refuse to sign must find other waters to wade in. The alternative is to tolerate those who follow the East German model, including China and individuals who make a mockery of sport.