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Pressure Builds on China Over Steroids

Workers make repairs at Green Leaf Pharmaceutical in Xianju after what was described as an April fire. The company used to sell stanozolol, a steroid, but not anymore, the workers said.
Workers make repairs at Green Leaf Pharmaceutical in Xianju after what was described as an April fire. The company used to sell stanozolol, a steroid, but not anymore, the workers said. (By Maureen Fan -- The Washington Post)

Chen Xianshun, chief of the customs inspection station in Taizhou city, which oversees Xianju, said the issue of which shipments are considered medicine and which are illicit drugs is complicated.

But as a customs officer, he said, "we only care if you have completed all the procedures or obtained the licenses you need" when exporting a product. "I don't know if the companies are familiar with our policy, or what can sell or what cannot."

One firm targeted by U.S. investigators said Chinese companies continued to export illicit drugs to developing countries in Africa and several in South Asia. Other companies said there was no problem selling steroids domestically or to countries other than the United States.

"The attitude of the Chinese government is not clear yet, so we will wait until a clear policy comes out next February," said Zheng Jianfeng, sales manager of Shanghai Jiubang Chemical Co., which sold steroids to international trading companies that acted as brokers.

Zheng added, "For the domestic market, if there is any demand, we will produce and sell steroids since the government doesn't yet limit the domestic trade."

Full Cooperation With U.S.?

International sports officials say the easy availability of steroids from China has long created a problem for the Olympics. That fact was driven home when court documents revealed that Chinese raw materials had been used in the designer steroids provided by the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO, and used by prominent Olympic athletes at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney and the 2003 track and field World Championships in Paris.

The outgoing chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Richard W. Pound, has demanded action on the issue from China for more than a year, saying its reputation as a widespread source of steroids could affect the credibility of the Games this summer, particularly if China fields a team of extraordinary athletes who seem to come out of nowhere to win medals.

China set up its first Doping Control Center in 1990 and established its first anti-doping law in 1995. Three years ago, authorities strengthened regulations to conform to the codes of the World Anti-Doping Agency and published a list of steroid and hormone products that require licensing.

But as steroids have continued to go abroad, they have also increasingly become a problem within China's own borders. Rising incomes have led more people to use performance-enhancing drugs. And as in other countries, coaches here have been known to encourage athletes to cheat.

"In the past, drugs like EPO" -- the endurance-boosting drug erythropoietin --"or insulin were so expensive that athletes couldn't afford them, but now it's different. People start to use drugs when they are young," Zhao Jian, head of the China Anti-Doping Agency, said in the state-run China Youth Daily recently.

During a visit to Beijing a day after the U.S. investigation was announced in September, Pound said Chinese authorities had assured him they were cooperating with the United States.

But there was "some issue as to whether some of the sources were actually in China, as opposed to being merely web sites in China," Pound later wrote in an e-mail, adding that the Chinese "had not yet finished their investigation."

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