Swimming: Drug seizure at airport fuels suspicion of Chinese competitor s

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Customs officers found suspected growth hormones in a bag belonging to a member of the Chinese team arriving in Australia yesterday for the world championships. Ian Gordon reports from Perth.

A Chinese team member's similarity in appearance to a suspected narcotics trafficker yesterday led customs officers at Sydney airport to search baggage in which substances were found that appeared to be growth hormones.

The officials said the suspected growth hormones, banned by the sport's governing body, Fina, were discovered when 29 members of the Chinese team stopped en route to Perth. The hormones were in 13 vials packed in ice in a thermos flask in a bag belonging to an unidentified female team member.

A spokesman for the Australian Customs Service said the vials had not been declared and were clearly labelled in English as "human somatropin", a growth hormone which can be used as a substitute for muscle-building anabolic steroids. "A team coach has said he packed the bag," the spokesman said. The team were released after some members were questioned, and continued their journey.

News of the discovery sparked cries of "told you so" from those in the sport who had been suspicious of Chinese swimmers' great advances in the sport.

Britain's Performance Director, Deryk Snelling, said: "It does suggest that the suspicions raised by the performances of the Chinese recently had some grounds."

He warned that if they compete, any Chinese victory or world record would be sneered at. "People are saying that if a Chinese swimmer wins they should be snubbed and everyone should turn their backs when the medal is awarded," he said, suggesting "everyone is going to be accusing them of taking drugs."

The Chinese team leader, Shi Tianshu, declared his athletes "clean" when he arrived here this week. He also cautioned the Australian team's head coach, Don Talbot, to "get the facts right" before pointing the finger at China following Talbot's publicly expressed doubts about the Chinese team.

Shi said Fina had carried out more than 100 out-of-competition tests on Chinese swimmers in the past two months and none had proved positive. Chinese officials have also conducted more than 650 tests in the past year.

Seven members of the Chinese team tested positive for steroids before the 1994 Asian Games in Japan, two months after they won 12 of the 16 events at the World Championships in Rome. They swam record times during the Chinese national games in October, raising suspicions among international competitors.

Other members of the Chinese swimming team were training in Perth when news of the seizure came through and appeared incredulous.

The contents of the vials are yet to be analysed to establish their actual composition and the result is not expected to be known until today. Although banned by Fina, there is no test to detect the hormones, but customs officials say it is unlikely any team members would be prosecuted even if testing proved the substance to be growth hormones because of the small amount found.