Spectre Of Doping Haunts China On Eve Of Games
Craig Lord
SwimNews involved in investigation - gene doping offered; WADA shocked; untrialled steroids for sale at bargain prices; Huang Xiaomin reveals that the class of 1988 was doped; Doping coach with national team

The host Olympic nation has pledged a zero-tolerance policy on doping as it prepares to host the Games in Beijing but behind the scenes the drugs crisis is mounting and about to enter a dangerous new phase. ARD, on Das Erste, Germany's premier television channel, tonight broadcast a documentary of an investigation conducted by Dokfilm investigators, Craig Lord and a number of other journalists and researchers. Below is a summary of the findings - a version of which appears in The Times, London - with some details that will complete a few puzzles for swimming readers. In summary: gene doping offered; WADA shocked; untrialled steroids for sale at bargain prices; Huang Xiaomin reveals that the class of 1988 was doped; doping coach with national team

Just 17 days before the Olympic Games open in Beijing, the host nation faces a fresh doping crisis after an investigation found a Chinese hospital ready to perform stem cell gene-therapy treatment on a fictitious American swimmer for US$24,000. The discovery, filmed by hidden cameras, was described by the director of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as being 'worse than my worst fears.'

The documentary also reveals that a female coach banned twice for doping minors is now a China national team coach, and, for the first time, provides hard evidence that steroids fed the first wave of Chinese Olympic medal winners in the pool as early as 1988, according to an Olympic silver medal winner who has suffered serious ill-health since her retirement from sport.

The film provides evidence that drug companies are willing to flout Government orders to 'keep China doping-free before the Games' by selling steroids that never passed full clinical and pharmaceutical trials and EPO at prices that undercut western competition by a massive margin: in the case of one steroid, 100g was sold for 150 euros when the price in Europe would have been more than 6,000 euros, according to experts.

Most shocking of the revelations is the willingness of a Chinese hospital to perform what WADA described as gene-doping on an athlete. When approached to comment, Jiang Zhixue, General Secretary at the Sports Ministry of China, said: 'On the issue of international criticism of the illegal trade in medication, the Chinese Government takes the issue very seriously and takes strong measures to fight that illegal trade.'

The effectiveness of those strong measures is challenged today. Following a tip off, the ARD investigators approached a state hospital seeking gene therapy for a 'US swimmer.' The fictitious US swimming coach was put in touch with a doctor at a second hospital. The coach asked if stem-cell treatment could be used to enhance his charge's performance in the pool. The head doctor of the gene-therapy department replies: 'Yes. We have no experience with sports people here, but the treatment is safe and we can help you.' Asked how it would work, the doctor explains: 'It strengthens lung function and stem cells go into the blood stream and reach the organs. It takes two weeks. I recommend four intravenous injections ... 40 million stem cells or double that, the more the better. We also use human growth hormones but you have to be careful because they are on the doping list.'

And the price? 'US$24,000,' replied the doctor, who then shows the investigators the room in which the treatment would be performed. The coverage is chilling.

David Howman, Director General of WADA, reacted with dismay when shown the film, saying: 'This is very distressing. It is very scary that health professionals should have such a lack of ethics and try what we know to be experimental on human beings for a vast amount of money. That doesn't match up to the standards that we ordinarily require of doctors and other medical practitioners. This is even more dreadful, because what they are proposing to do is a total breach of the prohibited list of the standards we have implied to make sure that cheating through the use of gene doping or gene therapy is prohibited. And it is very distressing to see that perhaps it's been used now or could be used in a country where the magnificent event [Olympic Games] will soon take place.'

Describing the investigation's findings as being 'worse than my worse fears,' Howman, speaking at the WADA conference in St Petersburg, adds: 'I feel quite sick in the stomach ... its something we have worried about, feared I guess and had hoped that people would be behaving in a medical, ethical proper way. And if we do have indications, than that is not the case, than it does not only worries WADA it would worry the health professionals in general. Because this is a major, major step in healthcare, that has to be done in an ethically appropriate, clear way. So it is a major concern.'

China is clearly struggling to contain a big problem. In its efforts to do so, the Chinese Government recently revoked licences for numerous companies to try to prevent any flow of banned substances to the sports market before the Olympic Games. One of those companies reported in China to have been affected was GenSci, which was said to have had its licence for one form of HGH temporarily revoked. The company has other troubles: American prosecutors are now in the process of suing the head of GenSci, Dr Lei Jin. 'GenSci's core product, Jintropin (rhGH, somatropin for injection) has been the leading brand of rhGH in China with a dominant 70 per cent of the market share. GenSci's profitability has been ranked No. 1 among Chinese biopharmaceutical companies', boasts the company in the world's largest HGH producer.

It is Jintropin that is at the centre of litigation in the US. Adi Goldstein, public prosecutor at Providence, Rhode Island, explained the reason for the action: 'The internet was their pin, their key tool in the distribution of human growth hormones. As stated in the complaints that were filed in court in this district, Jin Lei used numerous e-mail addresses to communicate with customers all over the world including the United States.'

GenSci was approached for comment but requests for interview were rejected. Two other companies were also approached. Each, it seems, has trouble controlling certain rogue elements among its staff and for some, there is no real fear of illegal trade in China. When two companies were asked if they could supply steroids and EPO, investigators were asked to pick up the substances personally. The seller said: 'The substance is a doping substance according to our Government and that is why we are not supposed to sell this before the Olympics. But after the Games business will be much easier again.'

EPO and a steroid called Estradiendione were offered. Just 100g of the steroid cost 1,500 yuan, equivalent to just over £100. It came with quality control certification and proved to be a bargain.

Mario Thevis, an expert at a laboratory in Cologne, tested the products, confirmed their authenticity and said: 'This is an anabolic steroid with unquantifiable health risks attached to it because it was never fully tested clinically or pharmaceutically. That's why it is only available on the black market. You would expect to pay between 6,000 and 7,000 euros for 100g [not 150 euros].' The laboratory price would be euros 40,000.

Hans Geyer, a German doping expert, added: 'That is absolutely unacceptable. I think the Chinese authorities would agree ... but it looks like they cannot get a grip on this problem. Several companies are still active, our research has shown, and the things they sell are pure, highly dangerous and would be considered illegal in Europe.'

Se-Jin Lee, a gene therapy expert at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has injected a substance into mice which quadruples muscle mass in a matter of days. His work was intended for muscular dystrophy patients. The doping scene was there almost as fast as he was. He said: 'I also, unfortunately, get lots of contacts, mostly by e-mail from bodybuilders, athletes and so forth, who, I would guess, are interesting in understanding how they might be able to exploit this kind of, you know, technical advance for inappropriate uses, that is for abuse.'

Patrick Diel, a gene therapy expert at the Deutsche Sporthochschule in Cologne and WADA officer, put the matter before the Bundestag [German Parliament] with information that Chinese scientists have know discovered that Se-Jin Lee's treatment works in pill form. Diel says: 'You no longer need an injection ... it seems enough if you synthesise the substances so that can take it ... in a sports drink, so that your moral threshold [for cheating] is lower. I consider that to be highly dangerous.'

In Toronto, Mauro di Pasquale, a sports doctor, tells the documentary that China's roll in the future of cheating is well established: 'I know of several incidences where athletes and this is from talking to coaches and other people that have direct knowledge, that several professional athletes in sports such as soccer, football and several amateur athletes even on the elite Olympic level have gone to China and had gene doping performed. These doctors - I can't give the names - are involved in university clinics, they are involved in hospitals and they also have their personal clinics.'

The latest revelations from China come as no surprise to those who have observed the nation's sporting advance since the 1980s. Huang Xiaomin arrived at the 1988 Games in Seoul as a 17-year-old member of the first Chinese swimming team to race in international waters. She improved a massive 8secs in a year in the 200m breaststroke on her way to winning the silver medal in Seoul, just over half a second away from the world record set by Olympic champion Silke Hoerner of the GDR.

It was from the GDR that China learned how best to dope its athletes. Huang Xiaomin, tells the documentary: 'When children get doped their appearance becomes more manly. Only in that kind of body can they win but only once they have won medals can they claim that the money, appreciation and the glory was worth being doped for.'

Inside China, she would not have been able to utter those words. Now a coach in South Korea, she said: 'We (the national team) were administered the substances at regular intervals. It always happened in a room at our dormitory (sports school). I couldn't take it every day because the side effects were too strong. I was told to tell my coach immediately if I had problems.'

Her revelations taint all Chinese performances at the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, at a time when the national team coaches and doctors were consistently the same people. In that entourage were doping abusers who never paid a price.

Huang Xiaomin paid a heavy price. 'My voice sounded more and more manly and my adam's apple was extremely big, much larger than it would normally have appeared in a woman,' she said. 'Male characteristics came through stronger and stronger as time went by. I had lots of health problem later on. It (doping) totally transformed me. In the end, I couldn't lift my head. It was as if I was ill. I had a feeling of being constantly feverous, even though I did not have a high temperature, I had no energy at all. I had no will to live. And that was the case for a long time.'

The investigation came across several other athletes who competed throughout the 1990s and up to as recently as four years ago. All had similar tales but none was willing to talk on the record. Huang said: 'If a Chinese athlete would say today that he takes doping he would have problems. But if he should say this to the international media then he would be considered to have soiled the communist party and they would not allow that. The consequences would be clear. Maybe they would imprison him or maybe even kill him. That is most probable.'

Results from Chinese swimmers have been modest in recent years after a period in the 1990s that produced more than 40 positive tests for substances including a variety of anabolic steroids. In 1998, Yuan Yuan was arrested by Australian customs officials after 13 vials of Human Growth Hormone were found in her bag. A world championship silver medallist, she and her coach were banned for life.

Since then, China has been tougher on cheats when cheats have been caught, imposing life bans on swimmers and coaches in order to send as strong a message as possible in the build-up to the Games in Beijing, which begin on August 8. China still toils, however, when it comes to the question of getting to grips with the industry that feeds the athletes and coaches. Where are the punishments for corrupt party officials? Where are the punishments for the doctors and hospital bosses? Where are the attempts to engage with pharmaceutical companies and work on methods to ease identification of external substances through tracers and other such techniques?

When asked about banned coaches still working with swimmers inside China, Li Hua, President of the Chinese Swimming Association, said: 'Such people will not figure in our training programme. They won't figure at all.'

But at the world short-course championships in Manchester in April, Li Hua sat three seats away from Xu Huiqin, a coach with the China national team, a head coach to a provincial team and a woman who has served two doping suspensions after her charges tested positive. Athletes formally under her control were too afraid to have their tales of Xu published in the international media. Those stories include references to the coach personally administering steroid injections to her charges.

Here's what happened to cause Xu to enter the Hall of Shame:

Xiong Guomin, man: tested positive for clenbuterol (Beta-2 agonist) in an out-of-competition test on March 8, 1999. FINA announced on August 9, 1999, a suspension of three years. The Chinese Swimming Associated imposed a ban of one year on coach, Xu Huiqin.

Wang Luna, woman: tested positive for triamterene (diuretic, masking agent) in out-of-comp testing before the World Championships in Perth, Australia on January 8, 1998 in the days that followed the arrest of Yuan Yuan at Sydney airport over the small matter of 13 vials of HGH in her kit bag. On August 6, 1998, FINA imposed a 2-year ban on the swimmer, and Xu was suspended for three months, from December 19, 1999, in the face of second-offence rules which many believe should have dictated her removal from sport once and for all.

Is Xu a fit person to have on the deck of a pool at a FINA event? At any event? No. There is no other answer. But she did not work in isolation, of course. Again, what is being done to find out more about the process that led to Xu's fall from grace? China should not take a stick to Xu. It should ask her to cooperate with an investigation. FINA can help oil the wheels of that process by urging its member to fall in line with decent practice and mature thinking.

When Li Hua was approached to comment on Xu's presence in Manchester, he said that he no longer wished to discuss the issue. His silence worries those in the swimming world who have noted the advance of a squad of young teenagers from Hunan Province known as 'The Baby Army'. The team covers 120km in water a week. Some children as young as 12 are getting close to that kind of distance, that kind of over-distance, one similar to that endured by GDR athletes who were fed steroids in the 1970s and 1980s in order to be able to 'recover and recuperate' in between sessions in a way that would not have been possible without doping. The GDR programme was called State Plan 14:25. China's is not a state plan but systematic in terms of the intensity and scale of the production line it certainly appears to be.

To date, there is no official list of swimmers for the Beijing Games as far as the host nation is concerned. It is time the world was told who from China has been selected. We can then all work out whether the host nation is truly starting with a clean sheet or whether swimmers ranked outside the top 5 back home, and some we have never heard of before, will continue to make it to the biggest of competitions in a China suit.

In an interview with Craig Lord, John Leonard, President of the World Swimming Coaches Association, said: 'We know that any performance that comes from outside the world top ten in the year [before the Games] to the podium is an anomalous performance and literally everyone of those performances over the last four years has later been proven to be doped. So if we get performances that are coming from outside the world top ten in the 2008 Olympic Games, no matter what nation they are from, we have to look long and hard that performances.'


The crisis goes well beyond swimming, of course. Goran Svedstaeter. International anti-doping control agent, is seen trying to get into an athletics stadium to carry out a control. He is directed to a side room by police guarding the door and then told that he cannot access the stadium or athletes. Why not? he asks - 'Because our rules do not allow it', replies a coach. What has IAAF done about that? Was an athlete/were athletes banned for non-compliance?

Weightlifter Li Zhen Cai is shown telling the camera: 'No, I've never been dope tested.' So much for the new no-stone-unturned approach to the doping crisis.

Meanwhile, those heading to Beijing beware of leaving personal effects, folders and laptops lying around on hotel tables. The ARD crew placed a hidden camera in their room and deliberately left papers and folders in their rooms. The footage clearly shows the 'cleaner' doing anything but cleaning - cleaning up facts perhaps as he rifled through property that belonged to others.

There is much more that cannot yet be told in order to protect innocent victims of doping abuse. One day, it will be different. That day is coming. China should not only protect its children but it should protect the children that have been abused in the past and now wish to share their stories with the world so that the next generation may grow up in a safer, cleaner environment.

The Research Credits:

Hajo Seppelt
Jo Goll
Craig Lord
Tina Naber
Ferry Batzoglou
Grit Hartmann
Dagmar Hovestedt
Jürgen Kalwa
Johnny X
Juliette X
Lea Zhou
Jennifer Stommel
Jan Else
Henri Selinski
Clemens Daum
Olaf Schröter
Susan Weißhaar
Felix Albrecht
Ina Hebestedt
Svend Angermann
Thomas Purschke
Blandina Brösicke
Katrin Zimmermann
Julia Buddeberg

And a thank you to ARD and Dokfilm.de, which invested the money necessary (and allowed its team the time needed) for the investigation, which many a media group these days opts to shy away from.