For China, women lead rush for gold Team eager to erase legacy of drug use

July 19, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- For several years now, China's athletic world has been dominated by women, drugs and Stalinism.

But as China's national team arrives in Atlanta this week for the start of the Olympics, only the women will be noticeable. Of the team's 310 athletes, 200 are women, and China is counting on them to win the lion's share of its medals.

As before, golds are expected from world-class female athletes, such as runner Wang Junxia in the 10,000-meter race, swimmer Le Jingyi in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, as well as star gymnast Mo Huilan. Some Chinese wags have called it the blossoming of the Yin (female) and withering of the Yang (male).

The differences lie in how those medals are won. Although drugs and a harsh sports machine still exist, they no longer dominate Chinese sports as they did in the past. A tough enforcement program has cut down on the use of steroids, officials say, and commercialization is making China's top stars rich -- and unwilling to put up with the iron-fisted discipline they once accepted meekly.

"China's system is caught halfway between the state and private enterprise," said James Riordan, a professor at the University of Surrey who specializes in Chinese sports. "Commercialization is creeping in, and athletes are becoming individuals."

Indeed, China's elite athletes now look to their Western counterparts as role models. When asked recently if she felt she was doing the country's ruling Communist Party a favor by winning competitions, shot-put star Huang Zhihong answered coolly: "My victories belong to me."

Looking to second careers

As in the West, Chinese athletes are using their sporting successes to position themselves for new careers. Many look to Li Ning, the triple gold medalist in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics who is now a successful businessman. Li parlayed his gymnastics medals into a sponsoring job and now leads China's most popular sporting goods company, hawking shoes, jackets and polo shirts to China's growing middle class.

"I think that being an Olympic champion who left sports and turned to business, I was a prominent example. I don't think that all current champions have to walk the same road, but my experience may prompt others to consider different paths in the future," Li said.

In the past, few Chinese athletes chose their own ways in life. Athletes were treated much as they were in many other communist countries: identified as talented at an early age, groomed in special sports schools and trained by government coaches and doctors.

Today, that structure of state-run sports elementary, middle and high schools -- even a University of Sports and Physical Culture -- still exists. But rather than being a monolithic organization aimed solely at culling gold medalists from China's population of 1.2 billion, sports organizations are expected to pay at least some of their own way.

That has led to a proliferation of provincial and professional teams that rely on sponsors.

Of the 32 members of China's track and field team competing in Atlanta, for example, 15 are based in Beijing on the national squad. The rest are members of provincial teams that bid against the national squad for graduates of sports schools. This has made it harder for national coaches to mold athletes into a national team that exists only to win gold medals.

War on drugs

The state, however, is hoping to keep enough control over sports to prevent its top athletes from testing positive for drugs.

Few outside observers doubt that China's meteoric rise as a sporting power in the late '80s and early '90s was due to drugs. Especially in swimming, success and drugs seemed inextricably linked. In the 1994 world championships in Rome, Chinese swimmers won 12 of 16 events, but since 1990, 19 swimmers have tested positive for drugs -- compared with 25 positives recorded in the rest of the world.

"They were desperate to win medals and did what everyone else did, which is to take anabolic steroids," Riordan said. "Now, I think they realize that if you're caught taking drugs, it backfires on you if you're doing it for purposes of national prestige."

This has led to a revamping of China's drug-testing procedures. China's sports federation now conducts extensive doping tests and allows foreigners access to training facilities.

Swedish enforcer

China's foremost drug buster comes in the form of a mild-mannered Swede, Nils Lindstedt, who works for International Doping Tests and Management. The private, Stockholm-based company has been hired by the International Amateur Athletics Federation to conduct out-of-competition tests around the world.

Unique in tightly controlled China, Lindstedt has passes that allow him to travel freely, from military-restricted training bases in Inner Mongolia to high-altitude sports camps in Tibet. Over the past two years, Lindstedt has been to all 30 of China's provinces and regions, administering 200 tests -- completely at random and with no warning -- to China's top athletes.

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