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Too Fast, Too High, Too Strong

By Jamie Metzl
From the Asia Society
Saturday, February 9, 2008 12:00 AM

Roger Clemens's congressional testimony next week -- the latest in the seven-time Cy Young award winner's series of denials of steroid use -- comes on the heels of a steady stream of bad news about a growing doping crisis in American and international sports. In the last several months, we've seen the International Olympic Committee strip Marion Jones of her five Olympics medals, the indictment of Barry Bonds, and the disqualification of 2006 Tour de France "winner" Floyd Landis. But while scandals such as these have up to now mainly discredited the sports themselves, they threaten to spark an international incident during this summer's Beijing Olympics unless far more is done to prevent a potential crisis.

The 2008 Olympics are primed to be among the most exciting in recent memory. An ascending China has decided to use the Olympics as a coming-out party to announce its arrival as a major world power. It is an open secret in China that the Chinese government wants very badly to win the overall medal count for the first time in the nation's history and is putting enormous energy and considerable resources -- more than twice as much as in the United States according to estimates -- towards achieving this goal. But entirely unconfirmed yet persistent rumors among the international sports community have raised questions about how far China will be willing to go.

Like their counterparts in the United States, athletes in China have a terrible record on doping. Perhaps the two most infamous recent case of doping by Chinese athletes came when the women runners coached by Ma Juren (and known as Ma's army) were pulled as a group from the 2000 Sydney Olympics when six of their seven members tested positive for steroids. In 1995, China's "Golden Flowers" female swimmers won 12 of 16 gold medals in the Rome world championships before a number of them tested positive for steroids and their coach was banned from competition. Chinese runner Sun Yingje was banned in 2005 for two years for steroid use, and last month, the International Triathlon Union announced that China's top triathlete, Wang Hongni, who trains with the Chinese military, had failed a doping test.

But China's strong system of government authority over Olympic training schools and programs, coupled with the increasingly decentralized nature of Chinese government authority, has given some in the West cause for concern. These concerns have been heightened by the fact that national and international structures designed to keep the games clean remain relatively weak.

The international anti-doping regime for Olympic athletes is overseen by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), but depends on the support and enforcement activities of national Olympic committees. In spite of the strengthening World Anti-Doping Code, the most recent version of which was accepted at the World Conference on Doping in Sport last week in Madrid, the IOC and WADA simply do not have the capacity to engage in the high levels of testing that would be required to ensure that athletes in large countries like the United States and China are complying. Instead, they must rely to an extraordinary degree on national anti-doping authorities and national volunteers.

To make matters even more complicated, it is extremely difficult using current testing techniques to catch perpetrators. Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is among the most popular drugs of choice used by elite athletes. Federal raids on 56 growth hormone labs in the United States in September demonstrated both the prevalence of these drugs and the fact that they are made almost entirely of raw materials imported from China. HGH clears the body in less than 24 hours, making it extremely difficult for even effective testing to detect -- particularly if logistical realities make testing athletes regularly all but impossible in large countries, if there is any collusion at all between testers and coaches, or if athletes are kept out of international competition prior to the Olympics and therefore remain outside of the existing testing structures until the last possible minute.

In spite of the best efforts of national and international authorities, the nightmare doping scenario for the Beijing Olympics remains relatively easy to imagine. In this scenario, the games begin with amazing fanfare and a remarkable demonstration of competence by the Chinese authorities. As the competition heats up, the American public begins to realize the political implications of the 2008 games, perceiving, rightly or wrongly, that China is implicitly challenging America's role in the world by seeking to defeat the U.S. in the summer games that America has long dominated.

As Americans get more emotionally involved in the games, they and the international community are shocked when Chinese athletes who have not previously competed internationally win in traditionally strong American events like short-distance running. Television announcers, seeking to fill round-the-clock coverage from Beijing, start reporting on the inadequacy of the global drug testing regime and rumors of persistent violations by all athletes -- with a particular focus on Chinese athletes. As these stories reach a crescendo, the Chinese press responds by accusing the Americans of seeking to sabotage China in its moment of glory. The Olympics end with increased acrimony between the world's most important developed and developing economy.

There is no evidence at this time that we are on this track, or that Chinese athletes are using these drugs more than any others. In fact, the Chinese government seems to have made impressive advances in strengthening its anti-doping structure and claims to have adopted a policy of "seriously banned, strictly testing, severely punishing" which was recently praised by WADA chief Dick Pound upon his return from Beijing. Nevertheless, the inadequacy of the international anti-doping structure relative to the magnitude of the problem, and the incentives for doping perceived by many athletes, lay the foundation for in increasingly serious problem. But because the doping issue, or even uninformed rumors or beliefs about it, threaten to undermine the good will the games are designed to create, it is imperative that more action be taken to prevent doping and to explain the strengths and weaknesses of the international anti-doping regime.

Anti-doping rules have proven extremely difficult to enforce around the world, and questions will certainly arise next summer in Beijing. To keep those questions from escalating into something more, the IOC, WADA, and the Chinese government must do far more to increase public confidence in their ability to make the Beijing Olympics as clean as they can be.

The writer is executive vice president of the Asia Society and an Ironman triathlete. The views expressed are his own.

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