China: Time To Change The Tune
Sep 5, 2008
Craig Lord

Comment: words, deeds, the difference between them and the doubts they raise remain at the heart of the Chinese puzzle

So, we learn from the China Daily today that "Chinese swimming coaches have slammed reports" that Aussie coach Ken Wood's "big-money" programmes explained the extraordinary progress of 16-year-old Liu Zige from a 2:09 swimmer last year to a 2:07 swimmer by April and a 2:04.16 world-record-holding Olympic champion by August in Beijing. 

Poor old Ken. He's 78. Can't do right at home - and then cops it from the folk he helped. Or did he? Here's what Liu's coach Jin Wei is reported to have told the Chinese media about suggestions that Wood's work was significant: "That is purely an excuse and such claims are lame and unprofessional. They [presumably Australia] are just looking for an excuse for Jessicah's defeat. Anyone with a knowledge of professional swimming knows that no training programme is confidential."

Now then, Jin Wei, I'd love to know just how well publicised the training programmes of Dai Guohong, Lu Bin and the rest of the Golden Flowers were in the 1990s. I'd love to know just how many coaches around the world were aware of Liu's stunning advance and knew the details of the programme behind that terrific leap. Details will doubtless be winging their way from China to us as you read.

Meantime, Schipper and Wood have parted company in the wake of the Olympic Games and the controversy over Wood's selling of some training programmes to the Liu camp. No offence to Ken but I doubt that it was his programmes that made all that difference. Otherwise, young Jess would have surely been on a 2:02 by now. Schipper is reported to be considering a move to Stephan Widmer's programme, base for Lisbeth Trickett, 100m 'fly Olympic champion. 

Back to Jin. He's a former swimmer from Shanghai and a member of what the China Daily calls "China's new generation of coaches who are willing to spend a lot of time training overseas". Jin said of Wood: "Ken is a very nice person and gave me a lot of help. I sort of see him as my mentor. But for training, everyone has their own programme. We have some very advanced methods in China. If we copied everything from overseas, I don't think we would be able achieve so much."

Those advanced methods in China, of course, produced almost nothing at all in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Fast learning curve. In the past two years, Jin has repeatedly taken Liu and men's swimmer Shi Feng to Australia to train with local coaches, including Wood. "The main reason for these overseas trips is to open their eyes," Jin said.

Jin's contemporary is coach Wei Yaping. Now, here's a coach who placed Tan Miao on the 4x200m free team that took silver behind the Aussies in the second-fatest time ever and some 13sec inside the nation's best from 2007. Tan is 21. From 15 to 19? Nowhere. At least not internationally. Between 2004 and 2007, Tan swam in a range between 2:02.10 to 2:03.85 over 200m freestyle. Her best this year dropped her to a 2:00.17. Her relay split at the Games was 1:58.00. Wei's work weighing in, doubtless. We better say that, lest Wei weigh into us, like he weighed into the "they" in the following: he tells the Chinese media that crediting Wood with Chinese success is "discriminatory and humiliated Jin and his fellow Chinese coaches ... they [Australia - perhaps a little wider, we think] always have doubts, whether we are good or bad. Now they say we bought their training program. That just proves they are looking at Chinese swimming in a distorted way."

Sweet. Some news for you, Mr Wei: yes, the world does look at Chinese swimming in a distorted way. And why? Because China distorted world swimming with more than 40 positive doping tests, mostly for anabolic steroids given to teenage girls. Sports offence. Criminal offence, too, in some parts of the world Mr Wei. And that quote about discrimination: almost word-for-word what Zhou Ming said to the world in the 1990s. Unwise, Mr Wei. Perhaps you would like to explain to Alison Wagner (USA) why she, likes so many others, is a member of the "what might have been in cleaner waters club". Discrimination is a two-way street. It starts at the point of attack - China in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Far too early to look the other way just yet, Mr Jin and Mr Wei. Trust will take much longer.

Liu is now heading back to training to prepare for China's return to Rome next summer, 15 years after the Golden Flowers bloomed like a bouquet of super-charged parasites before a handful of swimmers and coaches got caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Remember Ming, head coach. At least half of the 40 on that list of Chinese cheats had some connection with him. We were told that he was banned for life. Then we were told it was eight years. And then we learned that six years into that ban he was coaching kids again. Probably had been doing so all along. 

If China is serious about doping, as it claims it is, if it is serious in playing a full role in international swimming, as it claims it is, then it needs to stop shrugging its shoulders when questions about Ming and others like him are put; it needs to stop feigning surprise that the world is distrustful; it needs to halt the call of discrimination; it needs to ensure that unannounced means just that when it comes to anti-doping tests. The very idea of such a thing in China would be laughable if cheating were something we could all joke about.

China can say what it likes. What it does is far more important. And there is much more that it could be doing to ensure that a new start is seen as that by a wider world that looks on yet with a weary heart.