Athletics / World Athletics Championships: Ethical questions rising in the east: Mike Rowbottom on the concern over China's new-found success at athletics

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE sight of three Chinese athletes taking over the 3,000 metres final here on the command of their coach, before running to the line like a six-legged dragon, was something which perturbed, rather than delighted, most neutral observers.

The attitude was well expressed by the first question addressed to the new champion, Yunxia Qu, at the post-race press conference: 'How many times have you submitted yourself to doping controls in the course of the last few months?' To which the answer was: 'I have been tested three times, negatively, by the international federation.'

For all the shell-shock exhibited by Sonia O'Sullivan and Yvonne Murray after seeing their hopes of a 3,000m medal vanish, the Chinese arrival upon the scene was hardly a surprise. They were, after all, the leading nation at last year's world junior championships in Seoul, where their women won eight gold medals. What happened here was a logical progression.

Undoubtedly, the manner of the Chinese victory grated on many who saw it. But running as a team is not new. The Kenyans and Ethiopians have been doing it for years. Coaching from the stands is not illegal. Talking to your team-mates during a race, as the Chinese trio did, is not illegal. Celebrating victory with wide smiles and expansive gestures is not mandatory.

Putting all that aside, however, two deeper concerns remain. Was such an impressive performance - the medallists covered the last 800 metres in around 2min 0.3sec - possible without the aid of drugs? And was this to be the shape of athletics - at least on the women's side - for years to come?

As China mobilises its huge resources in bidding for the 2000 Olympics, there is a widespread fear that unethical methods have been employed - with assistance from former East German and Bulgarian coaches - to produce a generation of athletes which will bring complementary success in competitions.

At this year's World Cup swimming competition, in Peking in January, Zhou Xin became the first Chinese swimmer to test positive for drugs. The event's doping control officer, the New Zealander David Gerrard, said then: 'I see so many signs that the Chinese are using something. The tell-tale signs of steroids and human growth hormone are there to see.'

In the last two years, eight Chinese athletes have tested positive for drugs, including their world junior shot putt champion, Wang Yawen. That is a matter of record. But despite numerous reports to the contrary, Dapeng Lu, the Mill Hill-educated vice-president of the Chinese Athletic Association, denies categorically that Chinese athletics has ever employed East German or Bulgarian coaches.

'I have seen these things written before, and they are not true,' he said. 'I am very sorry for our athletes, who have worked very hard.'

Whether the Chinese women's domination is extending fully from junior to senior level will be clearer after Saturday's 10,000m final, where Wang Junxia, and Huandi Zhong, respectively fastest and third fastest in the world this year, will test Elana Meyer to the full.