Synthetic HGH Found in Luggage

Chinese swimmers heading for the world championships were greeted by armed guards and a media scrum when they arrived at Perth airport last night after customs officials found a flask believed to contain human growth hormone in their luggage during a routine stopover in Sydney.

The 29 swimmers and officials were not in chains, like the earliest visitors to these shores, but they were certainly in the dock, after a discovery that has cast an unwelcome cloud over a sport that is thoroughly tainted by the scourge of drug cheats.

The 26 vials in the flask, 13 of them labelled Somatotropin, a human growth hormone (HGH), and 13 of saline solution, were sent to a government laboratory for testing. They were discovered in a bag belonging to Yuan Yuan, who in 1994, the year seven Chinese swimmers tested positive for anabolic steroids, won silver and bronze medals in the two breaststroke races at the world championships.

The discovery was more by luck than design; customs officials had ordered the cases of a narcotics suspect to be searched but Yuan’s bag had been opened because it was on the same trolley coming out of the luggage hold.

Yuan, 21, told customs that she was carrying the flask to give to a Chinese doctor who lives in Australia, while her coach at the Guangzhou army base, Zhou Zhewen, told police that he had packed Yuan’s case for her. While Yuan is the lowest-ranked woman in the China team in Perth, rated twelfth in the world over 200 metres, three of Zhou’s other charges are ranked among the top two in the world in their events.

At Perth airport, Chinese coaches told Chinese television that the vials contained no more than “turtle jelly”, but customs officials at Sydney stated: “The suspected human growth hormones have yet to be analyzed…customs is continuing inquiries into the incident to determine what action to take.”

That could mean a fine of up to $50,000 (Pounds 20,000), though a first offence of importing a prohibited substance such as HGH usually results in a warning letter, a spokesman for the Australian Customs Service said.

Beyond national law, there are also swimming laws to consider, and should the vials prove to contain HGH, Fina, the international governing body, may turn to rule DC9.1 of its doping laws, which states that those found “trading, trafficking, distributing or selling any banned substance” shall be suspended, in the case of growth hormones, for a minimum of four years, including the next Olympic Games. Possession of such substances is also covered in the rule book.

When the news reached Perth, the Beattie Park Hotel, where those Chinese who had arrived in Perth several days earlier were staying, was bombarded by media. Armed police officers with bulletproof vests were called and it was later confirmed that a warrant had been issued for the police to search the rooms of the Chinese team members. At Perth airport hours later, the Chinese were jostled by cameramen who tumbled over chairs and cracked the heads of passers-by. A six-car police escort surrounded the China team bus that Yuan was taken to separately by police officers who struggled to fight off the pressing media.

Huang Jianxiang, a journalist with Chinese Central TV, suggested that China would have no faith in the testing of the vials: “You took the bottle away to your laboratory and you could change it. You can’t frame us like this. You say in the West you are innocent until proven guilty, but we are guilty until proven innocent.”

Not all Chinese swimmers, coaches and officials are innocent. Indeed, 23 have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, all but one for anabolic steroids, this decade, seven of those a month after Chinese women won 12 of 16 world titles in Rome in 1994.

The incident casts serious doubts over denials of a state drugs program in China after two of its women set world records in October to take to eight out of 13 the number of events in which Chinese women lead the world going into Perth.

The news from Sydney came barely an hour after Mustapha Larfaoui, president of Fina, the international governing body of swimming, had declared that 820 out-of-competition tests had been carried out in 1997 and had urged the media to “please stop the doping talk and report on the stars of these championships.”

Condemnation of the Chinese was widespread. Don Talbot, head of Australian swimming, claimed the Chinese had been “caught with their hand in the cookie jar”. A United States team spokesman said it was “a very happy moment”, while Mark Spitz, winner of a record seven Olympic gold medals in 1972, said that he believed the drugs had been brought in to test whether they could “get away with it” before Sydney 2000.

Fina faced further trauma yesterday when the German swimming federation won an injunction in the Supreme Court forcing Fina to hand back the accreditation to the world championships of its team manager, Winfried Leopold. Leopold has admitted his part in the doping of swimmers during his days as a coach in East Germany.

Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is a concentrated form of a naturally produced hormone that helps the body build muscle tissue. Its application results in significant gains in strength and size by stimulating production of muscle cells and strengthening connective tissue and tendons.

There is no test that conclusively reveals its presence. Side-effects of HGH abuse include diabetes, liver damage, elongation of the jaw and bone damage. For this reason, some athletes take natural HGH supplements such as SeroVital, which help the human body produce more of its own human growth hormone.

Human Growth Hormone Confiscated from Swimmer

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.