China cuts 40 from Olympic team

At least 13 fail drug tests
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China cut 40 athletes and officials from its Olympic team for the Sydney Games today, among them seven rowers and six runners trained by famed coach Ma Junren all of whom failed blood tests.

China cut 40 athletes and officials from its Olympic team for the Sydney Games today, among them seven rowers and six runners trained by famed coach Ma Junren all of whom failed blood tests.

Coach Ma - whose "Ma's Army" of women runners stunned the track world in the 1990s and whose anticipated appearance at Sydney boosted Beijing's medal chances - was among those cut from the roster, said Tian Xiaojun of the Chinese track and field association.

Six of the seven athletes that Ma expected to take to Sydney, including former 5,000-meter world record holder Dong Yanmei, were also cut for failing blood tests, said Tian.

"It's because of blood tests. They were above normal," he said.

The seven rowers cut from the roster failed blood tests for the banned performance-enhancing drug EPO, Olympic officials in Sydney said.

In all 27 athletes and 13 coaches and other officials were struck from the roster. Not all 27 athletes had "suspicious blood tests," said Tu Mingde, secretary-general of the Chinese Olympic Committee. "Some of them are injured, some of them are sick," he said, refusing to provide a breakdown.

China's decision to cut its team seemed certain to dent its chances of reaching its goal of 16 gold medals at the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 games in Sydney.

But by demonstrating resolve to capture drug cheats at home, Chinese sports officials may have improved Beijing's bid to hold the 2008 Olympics and avoided a repeat of the embarrassing doping scandals at the 1994 Asian Games and at the 1998 swimming world championships.

"I'm very pleased," International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch said of the doping withdrawals. "I'm very happy. This is very good news. It shows the new system for detecting doping substances will work very well. ... The objective is to have clean games."

Chinese sports administrators, after notifying Olympic officials of the cuts, revised the 311-strong roster of athletes it initially planned to send to the games. They released a partial list, via the official Xinhua News Agency, of 73 athletes and 33 coaches and officials who will go to Sydney.

Coaches, doctors and officials were struck from the list in line with Olympics rules regulating the size of delegations, Xinhua said.

Of Ma's athletes, only 10,000-meter Li Ji remained on the list. Spared any cuts or embarrassment was China's weightlifting team, which is expected to win at least 5 gold medals, including four women's titles.

Sydney organizers said Wednesday the Chinese Olympic Committee notified them it was sending 40 fewer athletes and officials than originally planned.

IOC medical director Patrick Schamasch said he received a letter from the Chinese rowing association confirming that seven rowers were being withdrawn after testing positive for EPO, or erthyropoietin, during pre-games doping controls in China. The tests showed EPO levels above the allowable limit, he said.

Last week, the IOC executive board approved the introduction of a combined blood and urine test for EPO at the Sydney Games. EPO, the drug of choice among endurance athletes, stimulates the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, and experts say it can improve performance by up to 15 percent.

Until now, no test had been able to detect the use of synthetic EPO.

In Sydney, an athlete will be considered guilty of EPO use only if both the blood and urine tests are positive. Schamasch said the Chinese rowers were dropped based only on blood testing.

Liu Jianyong, secretary general of the Chinese Rowing Association, said the rowers had withdrawn to protect their health and uphold the fairness of the Olympic Games.

"We are trusting the Chinese," Samaranch told reporters at a breakfast news conference. "They are fighting against doping. This is an example for many other countries. This is good news for the image of sport."

John Coates, head of the Australian Olympic Committee, told reporters that in addition to the dropped rowers the other Chinese cuts were: 14 in track and field; four swimmers and one competitor each from sprint canoeing and slalom canoeing.

"Anyone who takes EPO now knows they will be caught, increasing the chances they won't do it," said IOC vice president Dick Pound, who is also chairman of the new World Anti-Doping Agency. He called the Chinese cuts "a huge step forward."

China put a positive spin on the controversy. Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said in Beijing that the athletes had withdrawn for health reasons on the advice of doctors.

"We felt it would be best that we avoid any kind of an incident," Sun said.

The IOC began out-of-competition testing for EPO in Sydney and elsewhere in Australia last week. So far, 10 athletes have been tested, Schamasch said. The IOC expects to conduct 400 or more EPO tests through the end of the games.

A total of 3,200 drug tests - including 2,000 standard in-competition urine tests and 400 out-of-competition controls - will be carried out before and during the games in the biggest anti-doping program in Olympic history.

In another new step, the World Anti-Doping Agency is conducting around 2,000 unannounced, out-of-competition tests before the games.