Guilty by association

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am

Shaoxing's serene waterfront offers a fine view of the Qiantang River and outwards to sea. But visitors to the coastal city in Zhejiang province for the recent National Swimming Championships - which decided the final make-up of the Olympic squad - were probably unaware of the storm about to strike the mainland's sports cheats.

The talking point poolside and in the locker rooms was not about the handful of new Asian and national best times clocked up in the lanes - most of which were way below the medal-winning standard - but the government's sports chiefs and their new policing against doping.

The draconian regulations first surfaced in an annual national anti-doping conference a couple of days before the trials in the nearby city of Hangzhou, where sports-minister-turned-anti-doping-tsar Liu Peng sounded the most dramatic alarm to dopers in the country's sports history and, most likely, the entire world's sports history, too.

Any national team athletes - Olympic hopefuls included - found doping in 2008, regardless of whether it is a first-time or repeat offence, would be immediately banned for life, Liu announced.

Previously, China handed down a two-year suspension for first-time offenders, similar to rules set by sports authorities around the world.

Liu also declared coaches - and top governors of sports associations to which the sportsmen and women belong - would have to step down in the best-case scenario.

At worst, Liu announced, the suits could be stripped of their Communist Party membership - a career-wrecking disciplinary penalty under the mainland's single-party rule. Such punishment is usually reserved for corrupt government employees.

Once sacked from their posts and kicked off the gravy train, humiliated among their peers and family and forced to seek a less-glamorous career in a crowded jobs market, sports authorities would also demand they return their bonuses from their tainted tenure.

Those on the mainland keen to wipe the scourge of doping from a long-tarnished sports scene welcomed Liu's merciless crack of the whip with open arms.

International sports federations, coaches and athletes might be reeling in horror, however. Such sensitivities merely reflect the chasm between their decentralised regimes and the workings of China, where sportsmen and women have both their private life and career firmly under the control of coaches and officials.

But it wasn't these decisive measures that turned China - in one fell swoop of the policymaker's pen - from notorious drug-abusing sports power to ruthless, Victorian-like schoolmaster hell-bent on puritanical ways and punishment that some liberally minded sports fans might argue doesn't quite fit the crime. Deputy sports minister Duan Shijie added that not only the convicted dopers would be punished, but also their teammates - which had led to some very anxious coaches.

'If [for example] a shot-putter from a certain province is caught doping, then the whole provincial athletics team - all track and field disciplines - would be kicked out of the National Games next year,' said Duan.

The National Games are the bedrock of the mainland's sports system with most provincial sports authorities having their budgets decided by their athletes' performances at the four-yearly, Olympic style event.

Duan said they had borrowed the one-barred, all-barred practice from the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), which in the late 1990s ruled that any national association which had three or more lifters test positive in the same year would be handed a blanket one-year suspension on all lifters under the jurisdiction of the national association in question.

But this controversial rule was overthrown by the International Sports Arbitration Court in 2001 after an appeal by the Bulgarian national weightlifting team after three of its lifters were found to be doping at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Critics often linked the harsh IWF approach with that of Sippenhaft, or kin liability, a legal practice of Nazi Germany whereby the relatives of those accused of crimes against the state were held to be equally responsible.

Whether such guilt-by-association policies will strengthen the anti-doping cause in the mainland, or merely heap more controversy on the way the sports machine is run, is now the topic of heated debate.

'That is something unheard of in my previous career,' said Otto Sonnleitner, 72, a veteran Australian coach hired to train swimmers of the Shandong provincial team.

'It shows their determination, but you never know the collateral damage it could entail, I mean those innocent swimmers who would be implicated,' he said.

A Chinese national team coach, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was more straightforward. 'Most of the swimmers have been tested three times, if not more, over the past month alone,' he said.

'In some cases, athletes were dragged out of bed in the early hours to do a blood test. It's real scaremongering. I don't think this will do much good for our preparation for the Games.

'Plus, I think they are missing the real point in this campaign.'

He argued the authorities should have put more emphasis on eradicating the influence of former athletes and coaches who have a history of doping, rather than casting suspicion on everyone.

The most prominent example is Wang Dexian, a disgraced long-distance running patriarch.

He had his coaching licence permanently revoked three years ago after one of his star pupils, former world championship bronze medallist Sun Yingjie, tested positive for steroids use at the 2005 National Games.

Despite the ban, Wang remained in de facto control of the training regimes of several of his 'former' disciples.

Most are now operating under his wife, Zhu Fengling, a licensed, registered coach at the Chinese Track and Field Association.

In swimming, the sport where the doping culture was first exposed in the mid-1990s amid a flurry of scandalous positive tests, some of those convicted for cheating remain involved.

Most swimmers from the Tianjin provincial team have received instructions from Zhou Ming, a banned former national team coach, who has supervised the municipality's swimming programme in the capacity of a counsellor in the past few years, according to sources.

Wang Lin, another well-known dope master of the 1990s, is said to pull the strings behind the Guangzhou section of the People's Liberation Army's swimming team.

The Shaoxing tournament brochure listed Xiong Guoming, a former top swimmer, as a coach of the Shanghai provincial team.

Xiong served a combined seven years' suspension at the behest of world swimming governing body Fina for his positive tests at the 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games.

Asked whether heavyweight officials in Beijing were concerned about these dubious figures working with young athletes, deputy minister Duan paused before answering.

'We have noticed this and we will soon deal with it,' he eventually said, perhaps wondering when the finger of guilt by association stops pointing.