Chinese women still in pool of controversy Some say subpar efforts prove they're off steroids, but suspicion lingers

Atlanta Olympics

July 22, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Are they or aren't they?

The Chinese women's swim team has been under a cloud of suspicion since the four-year steroid scandal that shocked the swimming world and culminated in the suspension of seven swimmers after the 1994 Asian Games, but the first two days of Olympic competition may be proof that the Chinese have cleaned up their act.

World-record holder Le Jingyi won the gold medal Saturday night in the 100-meter freestyle, but several other highly ranked Chinese women washed out in the preliminaries and left room to wonder if the swimming's emergent Eastern empire will be a major force at the Atlanta Games.

"I can say this: They aren't swimming very well . . . dramatically bad," said U.S. women's assistant coach Gregg Troy.

There are various theories going around the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, including the obvious -- the Chinese became a swimming machine in the early 1990s through the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and now are having trouble staying competitive without them.

In yesterday's 200 freestyle, the two Chinese entries (Chen Yan and Shan Ying) finished 15th and 23rd, respectively, in the preliminaries after coming in with Olympic qualifying times that would have been good enough to rank among the top three or four preliminary qualifiers. Saturday, Le won the gold in her best event, but Chen and the other entry in the 400 individual medley were not even competitive, though they came in as a potential gold-silver combination.

Still, suspicion persists that the Chinese are cheating, even if the results would appear to indicate otherwise.

"Their accusations are groundless," Le said through an interpreter. "We were tested four times a week before the Games. People have said that. It's like slander."

Several American swimmers have been critical of the Chinese since the steroid stories first emerged, and -- because 19 Chinese swimmers have tested positive since 1990 -- they aren't apologizing for their skepticism.

"If Le is clean, then that's fine and I'm happy for her that she won a gold," said U.S. swimmer Trina Jackson. "But if they were taking [performance-enhancing] drugs, then they have to accept the payback that goes with it."

Some U.S. athletes have tested positive, but two of the most-publicized steroid incidents in swimming since have been recast to portray the athletes as victims rather than villains.

Jessica Foschi, a 15-year-old from New York, was banned, then reinstated when suspicion grew that she had been drugged unwittingly, and three-time Olympic medalist Angel Martino was kept out of the 1988 Olympics after testing positive for a chemical that no longer is on the banned list.

Martino said she was the victim of a false positive and that the substance in her system was a metabolite contained in her birth control pills. Her story gained credence when her strength and performance improved steadily through several years of clean test results.

Martino came up with a less-controversial explanation for the poor performance of the Chinese team, attributing it to poor strategy rather than the loss of muscle mass that might result from the discontinuance of steroid use.

"I think they were used to swimming too easy in the morning," said Martino, who finished third behind Le in the 100 freestyle Saturday night. In the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain, the Chinese tried to conserve energy, Martino said, by "qualifying sixth or seventh in the morning, but I think that has backfired this time."

Pub Date: 7/22/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.