A tempest in a Thermos is what Australian customs officials pulled out of the luggage of Chinese swimmer Yuan Yuan upon her arrival for the World Swimming Championships.
Inside that bottle, packed in ice, were 13 tiny vials of the human growth hormone known as Somatropin.
The immediate reaction of the international swimming community?
U.S. swimmer Jenny Thompson described the confiscation of Yuan’s Thermos at the Perth airport as “the happiest day of my life.”
Coaches Don Talbot of Australia and Mark Schubert of the United States could scarcely contain their glee.
“This time they’ve been caught with their hands in the cookie jar,” Talbot declared.
“The smoking gun” is how Schubert described the contents inside the telltale Thermos--tangible evidence, at last, in the long-simmering case of suspicion and innuendo against the Chinese swim team.
But that was only the teaser, as it turns out.
Thursday at the World Championships, four Chinese swimmers--three women and one man--tested positive for the banned substance Triamterene, a diuretic used to dilute urine samples in order to mask the presence of anabolic steroids.
--All four swimmers were from the same Shanghai swim club, coached by Zhou Ming, who had previously been suspended when seven of his swimmers were caught using steroids in 1994.
--Those four test results brought to 27 the number of failed drug tests by Chinese swimmers since 1990--more than the rest of the world combined.
FINA, international swimming’s governing body, immediately suspended the four swimmers from the world championships, following FINA’s suspensions of Yuan for four years and her coach, Zhou Zhewen, for 15.
But that wasn’t enough to appease the harshest critics of the Chinese swim program.
Some called for China’s immediate expulsion from the world championships and return of all medals won at Perth. Others have demanded China be banned for four years from all international swim competition.
“Athletes in my teams who bust their arses are affected by this,” Talbot told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I personally feel the Chinese should not be allowed to continue in the meet. When they [FINA] write these rules, they should operate by them.
“I know a lot of people say we take a holier-than-thou attitude, but if our athletes are caught, they should go out. If we get four [positives], then the nation should be disqualified. The rules are there and they should be upheld.”
Concurring was Mark Spitz, who compared the Chinese drug scandal to Tiananmen Square.
“A number of years ago, there was Tiananmen Square and the government denied that was taking place,” Spitz said. “The attitude of the Chinese delegation is not that much different--there is a major conflict to what has been said and what has been found.
“Let me point out that it is always the women. I think it is appropriate to ban them.”
Another potential sanction: China losing its bid to host its first Olympic Games in 2008 or beyond.
Speaking with reporters in New York last week, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, said China has “the right to pursue a bid, but it is up to the IOC members what is acceptable. I think they would be in trouble. . . . Many would not be in favor.”
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER
Suspicion about the Chinese women’s team began to escalate last October when two swimmers shattered world records at the Chinese national championships. One record, the 400-meter individual medley, had stood for 15 years.
From the latest issue of the FINA-produced World of Swimming magazine: “It was not only a case of astounding performances . . . but also a terrific rise in overall standards reflecting dramatic transformations without precedent.
“Either before or after the championships in Perth, some major reaction will be seen, most probably on the part of the Anglo-Saxon nations who, in the wake of ever more widespread reports of doping in the German Democratic Republic, are unwilling to give in to attacks from another quarter.”
Before and after the confiscation of the human growth hormone shipment, here is how several Chinese swimmers ranked in 1997 and then again last week in Perth:
Shan Ying, 200-meter freestyle: 1997--1:59.43, No. 4 in the world. 1998--2:09.11, No. 32 in the world.
Wang Luna, 200-meter freestyle: 1997--1:57.32, No. 2 in the world. 1998--2:01.77, No. 10 in the world.
Wei Wang, 100-meter breaststroke: 1997--1:08.26, No. 3 in the world. 1998--1:13.84--No. 29 in the world.
Zhang Yi, 100-meter breaststroke: 1997--1:08.61, No. 4 in the world. 1998--1:11.47, No. 16 in the world.
“It’s kind of interesting when 13 vials of human growth hormone are taken from them, all of a sudden they don’t swim so well,” U.S. swimmer Amy Van Dyken mused. “Seems funny to me.”
AND IN OTHER DOPING NEWS . . .
UCLA’s drug-testing lab avoided revocation of its IOC accreditation Thursday when the U.S. Olympic Committee announced it would provide the money for UCLA to purchase a high-resolution mass spectrometer.
The spectrometer, a machine that can detect small traces of drugs taken by athletes months before a urine sample is drawn, is now a requisite for IOC-licensed drug labs. Late last year, the IOC threatened to revoke UCLA’s license unless it purchased one of the devices, which cost about $225,000.
Precedent worked in UCLA’s favorite. Last year, the USOC gave a similar grant to the IOC-accredited Indiana University-Purdue University lab at Indianapolis, which purchased a spectrometer in October.
REBEL WITH A SNOWBOARD
The world’s best halfpipe snowboarder is boycotting the Winter Olympics in protest of the IOC, comparing the organization to organized crime.
Terje Haakonsen of Norway, three-time halfpipe world champion, has likened the IOC to the Mafia, telling Swedish television last month that the IOC is run by “people who take over control but never let anyone have an inside look at what they are doing.”
Haakonsen also told the Swedish newspaper Verdens Gang, “The fact is that the bigwigs ride in limousines and stay in fancy hotels while the athletes live in barracks in the woods. . . . I’m basically not saying anything more than Vegard Ulvang did before the Olympics in Lillehammer.”
Ulvang, a top Norwegian Nordic skier, lambasted the IOC for Samaranch’s reported political ties to the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco as being “bad and may not be worthy of a sports movement.”
In New York, Samaranch tersely dismissed Haakonsen’s charges, saying, simply, “We’re used to it.”
INSTRUCTIONS NOW INCLUDED
The Olympic torch relay currently underway across Japan has been more fizzle than sizzle, with continued flameouts reported along the course route.
The torch flame has gone out eight times since the relay began Jan. 6. Perplexed Olympic officials commissioned a battery of tests, concluding, finally, that tired runners were allowing the torch to tilt, which blocked the flow of fuel to the flame.
Thus, the Nagano Organizing Committee passed along the following sound advice to future torch carriers as they prepare to run their individual legs: If your arm gets tired, switch hands.
Times staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this story.
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