April 06, 2020

The shame of winning

The Asian woman in the photo looks frighteningly familiar, although 15 years ago, she had blond hair and, instead of a swimsuit, wore an East German track uniform. She is one of four female swimmers from China whose careers likely are finished. Her country might face a similar fate in its quest to play host to the Olympics.

Four of China’s female swimmers were banned from the world swimming championships in Australia this week, but their presence is evidence of how far international sports organizations have to go before they rid sports of performance-enhancing drugs. The cause is steroids, given to the athletes by coaches. The girls’ ban from competition brings to 27 the number of Chinese swimmers who have been caught since 1990 using either steroids or drugs to hide the signs of steroid use. Chinese runners, who lit up the record books a couple of years ago before disappearing, also have been suspected of steroid use.

Unnaturally muscled in their arms and across their backs, these powerful girls look intimidating but actually are frail potential victims of a range of health problems, from heart and liver failure to reproductive dysfunction. They are not alone in taking these drugs, of course. Americans, Canadians, Europeans all have been caught with the banned sustances. What makes the Chinese different, however, is that, like the East Germans, they seem to have an institutional policy that allows coaches to feed teen-agers these dangerous drugs. Too many Chinese athletes have been caught in too short a time to think otherwise.

Beijing lost a bid to hold the Olympic Games in 2000 to Sydney, Australia. Athens has been awarded the 2004 games; but Beijing is said to have a strong chance for 2008. The host for those games will be announced in 2001. The International Olympic Committee could not in good conscience give Beijing the nod if its athletes continue to be regularly caught using steroids.

China has until then to clean up its sports organization. It can, like East Germany, admit that it badly misdirected coaches, putting winning and records ahead of the health of its athletes. At the very least, it can recognize that the shame of being caught cheating has caused far more harm to China’s reputation than the unremarkable performances of its nondrugged athletes ever did.

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