BEIJING: They work in the shadow of Beijing's main sports complex, lab technicians in white coats who screen samples from Chinese athletes and look for performance-enhancing drugs.
On the eve of the Athens Olympics, these workers could prove to be just as important to China as the swimmers and runners who will compete for medals and fame.
China, plagued by a series of drug cases in the 1990s, want to improve their image before the 2008 Beijing Games.
“Not only do we want to send our best and most accomplished athletes to the Olympics, we must also send our cleanest athletes,” said Shi Kangcheng, China's anti-doping czar.
China's tough line is driven by the scandals. Thirty-two swimmers were caught using drugs – more than four times the total from all other countries – and other Chinese athletes were stripped of medals for doping.
To win is to bring glory to China, but to cheat is to bring shame.
“As our athletes got caught, we recognised this problem more and more,” Shi said. “After more than 10 years of anti-doping work, China are bringing this problem under control.”
China emphatically deny official involvement in doping, but the country is still a place where the state oversee a vast sports machine that trains children as young as six to be world champions.
In a crackdown before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, China withdrew 40 athletes and officials from its team. They included six runners trained by famed women's track coach Ma Junren – plus Ma himself.
It was a shocking reversal for “Ma's Army,” whose string of record-breaking performances in the 1990s made the athletes national heroes.
Despite repeated promises to wipe out drug use, a female weightlifter was stripped of three gold medals at the world championships in Vancouver last fall after failing a test.
Shi acknowledges it may take a while to stop the cheaters.
“We don't want this problem to come up during the Beijing Olympics,” he said. “This is very important.”
China's efforts are starting to pay off, helping to improve their image around the world.
The country has shown “a high level of ambition,” said Anders Solheim, chief executive officer of Anti-Doping Norway, which helped China enact international anti-drug standards.
“It shows commitment to use the best available procedures and have a system in place where you evaluate your own work,” Solheim said. “This is a good basis for the cleanest games ever.”
Just as China push their athletes to glory and Olympic golds, the anti-doping bureaucrats also are being pushed to perform.
Shi, director-general of science and education for the State General Administration of Sports, runs the anti-doping effort from sparkling new headquarters in central Beijing. His desk is adorned with a computer and the red hammer-and-sickle flag.
He said temptations for athletes to abuse drugs are increasing even as China crack down.
“As China becomes a market economy, athletes can earn a lot of money from speaking engagements and endorsements,” he said. “They may be more willing to put their bodies at risk.”
Another challenge is China's chaotic marketplace, where drug piracy is rampant and anyone can buy medicine without a prescription.
“Steroids – and all kinds of drugs, actually – are easy to get,” Shi said. “The problem is dealt with in the law, but not in the market.”
Many drugs aren't labelled properly – especially China's array of traditional remedies. A buyer might unknowingly consume an ingredient on the Olympic list of banned substances, Shi said.
Chinese blur the line between food and drugs, using medicinal herbs in cooking and assigning medical properties to food. Hot peppers are eaten to ease bloating. Melon soup is served to cool the body.
Some Chinese dried pork products are prepared using clostebol, which is banned as a performance-enhancing drug, Shi said.
“In Asian countries we have this view that food and drugs come from the same source,” he said.
The Beijing lab lets athletes submit foods and herbal medicines for analysis. So when they're not testing urine samples, technicians puzzle over diet pills, health drinks, teas and exotic Chinese remedies such as powdered deer antlers or turtle's blood.
But ignorance of what's in their food is no longer an excuse, Shi said.
“Positive tests are seriously dealt with,” he said. “China's own rules are never less than international penalties.” – AP