Athletics: Chinese puzzle pundits

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IN the light of history, it was perhaps understandable that China's staggering improvement at the World Athletics Championships in Stuttgart last week should give rise to thoughts so dark that the line between muttered suspicion and outright accusation was so fine as to be almost indistinguishable.

As the first question put to the 3,000m gold medallist, Qu Yunxia, made clear, nothing persisted more in the fancy of western observers than the conviction that China are emerging as a power in the sport through methods that would not survive close scrutiny. 'How many times have you submitted yourself to doping controls in the course of the last few months?' she was asked.

What you could not help notice, after Qu's success and others achieved by the Chinese girls, was that the audience did not take kindly to them. As my colleague, Mike Rowbottom, reported, it was not exactly the roar of the crowd that Dong Lui heard on her lap of honour after winning the 1500m gold, China's fourth of the championships.

To put a derisive response in proper perspective entails not only a consideration of ideological differences but widespread rumours that coaches from the former GDR have taken up employment in China, presumably on the basis that they are not required to clean up their act.

Well, things have reached a pretty pass when this space is devoted to a defence of attainments that severely tested the credulity of informed athletics buffs. Yet a statement has come to attention which credits Great Britain's senior athletics coach, Frank Dick, with more discretion than can be afforded some slacker-mouthed members of the brotherhood.

It may well be that the Chinese are up to no good (eight Chinese athletes have failed drug tests in the last three years, some found out by their own authorities), but as Dick sensibly pointed out, there is plenty of scope for legitimate sporting advancement in a country inhabitated by one fifth of the world's population. Indeed, given a highly concentrated, state-aided athletics programme and obedience to the cause, it would be surprising if they did not come up with the goods.

Equally, no red-blooded patriot could have failed to take offence when rumours grew up around the impressive performances turned in by Britain's sprinters, most notably Linford Christie after he demolished a high-class 100m field.

The rumour that Christie had tested positive (nobody could be quite sure of the source, although there were some educated guesses) persisted long enough to justify involving the International Amateur Athletic Federation's doping authority, which dismissed it out of hand. Dick's response, more or less, was that when athletes perform exceptionally there is always someone who wants to put them down.

Is this not precisely what some prominent people in athletics were guilty of last week when concluding that China could not possibly have been so successful in Stuttgart, coming second to the USA in the medal table, without chemical assistance?

For this, the sport has only itself to blame. Tainted by the scandalous revelation that the Canadian sprinter, Ben Johnson, cheated when winning the 100m gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Games, it has failed to eradicate the problem.

For example, where in the sport is there a national federation with the confidence to come forward and say that none of its athletes are breaking the rules?

The point, it seems here, is that some of the people who did not need much prompting to express their suspicions about the Chinese are on dangerous ground.

This is not to make a case for China. If the system of drug-testing is so feeble as to be ineffective there, and taking vast human resources into account, athletics on a global scale could be heading for more serious trouble than even its gloomiest prophets imagine.

Even though allowances are made, however, the suspicions levelled at the Chinese evoke an ancient motto. I'm sure Confucius didn't say it, but isn't there something about people in glass houses not throwing stones?