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.