Time for China’s sports authorities to check how good their anti-doping measures are

A swimmer’s failure to pass a test in Rio casts a pall over the nation’s sporting efforts, and should serve to renew efforts to ensure clean participation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2016, 12:48am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 August, 2016, 12:48am

China’s ultimate goal at the Rio Olympics was to have a clean Games, so that gold-medal success and national image were not tarnished by allegations or suspicions of cheating. The goal has been clouded by the drugs war of words surrounding champion distance swimmer Sun Yang, and now has apparently been dashed by the failure of 18-year-old swimmer Chen Xinyi to pass a drug test.

To understand just how important it was to emerge from the Games with a clean record intact, it is necessary to go back 24 years to 1992. That was when China last had an athlete test positive at the Olympics, a matter of some pride given previous scandals. The goal became personal this week with drug-cheating innuendo and smears against Sun, started by an Australian rival who beat him in the 400-metres freestyle and debated furiously on social media. Chinese officials have vigorously defended their athletes. But the Sun affair between China and Australia has a history.

Swimming Australia said in December 2014 that under its zero-tolerance policy on doping, Sun was no longer welcome to train as planned at its high-performance centres after a six-month delay in disclosure of his positive drugs test at the national titles in May, during which a three-month suspension was served in secret. The world anti-doping code calls for violations to be reported within 20 days and bans are usually more severe.

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The Chinese Swimming Association says Chen tested positive for a diuretic last Sunday after finishing fourth in the 100-metre butterfly final. Diuretics increase urination rates and can be used as masking agents to hide the presence of performance-enhancing substances during doping tests.

The CSA is to be commended for pledging full cooperation in the investigation. After all, these days, athletes should be so diligent about what they eat or drink, where it comes from, and so on, that there is no way a diuretic should get into their systems. It cannot be ruled out that China may follow a self-regulatory system that falls short of world best practice.

No matter how confident Chinese officials may be that Chen’s is an isolated case, it is time for honest reflection on the rigour and efficacy of their anti-doping regime and compliance with it. The risk of detection does not necessarily end with a negative test result. Samples are retained so they can be retested in future with improved technology, as some cheats have found to their cost. Zero tolerance is the only lasting defence against dishonour.