-- Shortly before the U.S. team concluded one of its most successful swimming world championships in history, U.S. men's team coach Dave Salo expressed surprise that China was not more competitive, saying the nation's sluggish performance raised suspicions that it was keeping its best swimmers sequestered in China so they could avoid international drug testing.
With the Summer Games in Beijing three years away, Salo and other U.S. coaches expected the Chinese, who have been public about their desire to be the dominant country at the 2008 Olympics, to be much more of a factor in the medals race.
Instead, the United States ran away with the top spot in the rankings, claiming 32 medals, its most since 1978. Australia was second with 22 and China tied two other nations for fifth place with five.
"It raises suspicions when they are not part of the world and trying to be the best they can be in the world arena," Salo said to a small group of mostly U.S. journalists hours before Sunday night's finals at Jean-Drapeau Park.
Later, he added that the nation that instituted a national anti-doping program after more than 40 Chinese swimmers failed drug tests in the 1990s was being closely watched from within the international swimming community.
"The way you try to deal with it is from a testing standpoint," he said. "We want to eliminate that issue from being an issue, the drug issue. But when they're not participating to the extent you'd expect them to be here, you wonder: What are they doing? Who are they hiding?"
Salo also said: "It's always going to raise suspicions when you're going into Beijing [for the 2008 Olympics and the Chinese] haven't done anything for three years and all of a sudden [they've] got names you've never heard of showing up in the finals heats. It's discouraging. Just not knowing is frustrating for everybody."
Zhao Ge, the coach of the Chinese team, said China's drug problem was in its past and that most of China's best swimmers were here. Others, he said, were preparing for another major meet.
"I don't know why Americans say we haven't brought the best swimmers here," he said. "We don't need to hide now. We're open. . . . You can come to China to see everything."
Zhao added that the Chinese swimming federation had invited Australian swimmers to take part in last year's national championships. He said China's problem with performance-enhancing drugs in sports was "only in the past."
"Now we look to the future," Zhao said. "What they think is what they think, but fact is fact."
Chinese swimmers are subject to unannounced drug tests by national testing authorities, the world governing body of swimming (FINA) and the World Anti-Doping Agency. The Chinese anti-doping agency reported in January that only 17 of more than 4,000 Chinese athletes tested last year turned up positive for drugs. FINA's Web site reports that it has performed 33 unannounced drug tests on 20 Chinese swimmers so far this year (for comparison, FINA has performed 107 tests on 79 U.S. swimmers) and that no Chinese tested positive in 2004 (three Americans did).
Chinese officials frequently cite such statistics as evidence that the nation has moved beyond its negative doping history. A wave of positive tests and drug suspensions hit China after the 1994 world championships in Rome, when the Chinese women's team stunned the world by winning gold medals in 12 of 16 events.
Salo's remarks reflect a concern that other coaches have expressed -- some privately -- that China or other nations seeking to make a splash at a specific meet might intentionally keep their top, developing athletes out of the public eye until shortly before that event so their names would never become known to drug testers. WADA and other international bodies that conduct testing randomly choose only from athletes who are top-ranked in their sports.
John Leonard, head of the American Swimming Coaches Association, has said a Chinese coach told him that 50 of 100 swimmers who were selected for development in China essentially disappeared, never traveling to meets, but those remarks have not been substantiated.
When asked whether some Chinese swimmers were preparing for the 2008 Summer Games without entering competitions, Zhu Yingwen, who won the bronze in Sunday's 50-meter freestyle, said through an interpreter that she did not know.
Dick Pound, chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said he had no reason to believe anything was amiss in China, pointing out that the nation had been under significant scrutiny since the '90s drug outbreak and Chinese authorities have sought guidance from WADA in creating a vigorous testing program.
The Americans "didn't like it when China was winning and they don't seem to like it when the Chinese are not winning," Pound said. "What do the Chinese have to do? If there's a problem, identify it. If there's not a problem, keep quiet. . . .
"My sense is the Chinese don't want to be embarrassed at their Games. My sense is they do have the sense not to show up as the host nation with all of their athletes doped up to the eyeballs."
Jack Bauerle, the U.S. women's team coach here, said he preferred not to consider sinister possibilities.
"It probably raises a little suspicion," Bauerle said about China's checkered history. But "I'm sure we've had performances in the past that people questioned because they've been so outstanding. I just think the host country, all of its efforts are going into . . . being as good as you possibly can be."