Shock, horror over Chinese swimmers testing positive? More of a yawn
There was a time when the world would pounce on mainland discretions, but doping is so widespread now that people are hardly surprised
Remember those infuriatingly clever kids in class? The ones who harvested As, never helped you with homework, covered their answers when you tried to copy and condescendingly patted you on the head when you got a C?
And remember how you hoped that they would get caught cheating? So you and your friends could humiliate them and say right to their faces: “I knew you were a fake!”
And then, in a moment as sweet as Manchester United losing, your wish came true. They were indeed caught cheating with answers written on the back of their scientific calculators. Not only that but their parents had supported their mischief – encouraging, goading and even devising cheating strategies as exams approached.
And how therapeutic it was for you and your friends as you humiliated them and said right to their faces: “I knew you were a fake!” And then you went back to copying from each other’s homework.
In the mid-90s, investigators unleashed a raft of positive tests in what would be described as a state-sponsored doping programme for Chinese swimmers. And the world reacted much like students celebrating the exposure of a cheating brainiac classmate. It’s what they had been waiting for after Chinese swimmers, especially their women, swept away opposition in a wave of gold at the Olympics and world championships.
Led by sceptical United States and Australia, they high-fived each other with glee while sternly tut-tutting a mainland system that had virtually copy-and-pasted its doping and coaching programme from East Germany, which a few years earlier disintegrated with the Berlin Wall, leaving a bunch of skilled dope-pushing coaches twiddling their thumbs – until China came calling.
Last week, reports emerged that six Chinese swimmers tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Whistle-blowers also accused mainland officials of covering up those positive tests, though a high-ranking official from China’s anti-doping agency, Chinada, denied this. Zhou Jian said world anti-doping body Wada had been kept informed of all positive tests and that China had followed all the rules in terms of disclosure.
It’s only been a few days since the revelations but the reaction of the world has been much more muted towards China than it was 20 years ago. Maybe it’s because China are not the same swimming powerhouse they were in the early 90s, or because it is hidden in the shadow of an infinitely more sinister doping scandal that has rocked Russia, with sport after sport – starting with track and field – poisoned by the doping disease.
Or quite simply, the world is tired, cynical and afraid.
Tired because since the supposedly landmark case of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson in 1988 – timestamped as the day the war on doping would finally be won – the situation is actually much worse nearly 30 years down the road.
Cynical because, let’s be honest, we all think that everyone’s on drugs and it’s just a case of who gets caught. No athlete had been humiliated and scorned as much as Johnson after the Seoul Olympics. Yet, rather than show remorse, he did it again.
Afraid because you simply don’t know what’s hiding in your own closet. After a string of Chinese athletes tested positive from the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, and the world shouted “Gotcha!”, skeletons started to rattle everywhere, even in countries that claimed to be cleansed of doping.
One of China’s biggest critics at the time was Australia. In February 2013, a Crime Commission report based on a 12-month probe said doping was evident in numerous sports in Australia, in addition to match-fixing and links between sports administrators and organised crime. Though this came out three years ago, reports of abuse in the Australian sporting system had started as far back as the late 1990s.
The United States is also not short of high-profile doping offenders, with seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong probably equalling Johnson in notoriety.
Sprinters Tyson Gay, former Olympic gold medallist Justin Gatlin and heartbreakingly, Marion Jones, have also tested positive for the United States in a series of scandals that, because they were not in China or Russia, were safe from accusations of “state-sponsored”.
For China, doping goes beyond succeeding at international level. Bitter provincial rivalries create a win-at-all-costs culture within the country that is even harder to police. But like the smart kid cheating at exams, the world is no longer shocked.