The doping scandal in Russia got intensive coverage before the start of the Olympic Games in Rio, but other countries, including China, have their doping issues too. Journalist Ian Johnson dives into some scandals, including China´s position, for the New York Review of Books.
Like Russia, China aspires to greatness and also wants all the trappings of a superpower—space exploration, a say in how the Arctic and Antarctic are run, control and militarization of offshore territories (or even construction of artificial islands) based on flimsy historical precedent. Olympic dominance is part of this old-fashioned vision of national greatness. But China, with its huge population and rapid economic growth, is in a much stronger position than Russia and so its efforts to manipulate the system are not as crude.
This has allowed China to achieve great success through legal—if somewhat unsportsmanlike—methods. While other countries invest significant amounts in national sports programs, the Chinese government pours huge amounts of money into what is essentially a Manhattan Project-like sports machine. Its overriding aim is to create national glory for a government that has made nationalism one of its pillars of support. So colossal sums of money have been spent on marginal sports with high rates of medal returns, while potential national team members are selected and rigorously trained from a very early age. All this makes doping less important; it is only one of a number of methods that might bring the country’s athletes to the very top of world sports. Yet my guess is that it is still widely practiced—but just more carefully and as a last resort.
For example, it’s unlikely that Chinese badminton or ping-pong players systematically dope. Why would they need to, since few countries play these sports as enthusiastically as China does? This means the country has a natural advantage in these sports and its gold medals are probably legitimate.
But the story is probably different in globally competitive sports like swimming. Without whistleblowers to provide a clear picture, one can only draw conclusions based on patterns of behavior, but recent reports have raised many questions. One is the practice of seclusion—where athletes do not appear at international tournaments in the lead-up to major competitions like the Olympics so they can avoid testing. Doping experts suggest that this allows athletes to dope during training—which is mostly how drugs are used—and have the material flushed out of their system by the time of the competitions. And when athletes are caught, they are given light sentences by Chinese authorities. This was the case for China’s best-known swimmer, Sun Yang, who was given a three-month suspension instead of the traditional two-year ban, with the suspension suspiciously taking place before the violation was made public.
This does not seem to be an isolated case. Earlier this year, for example, The Times of London reported that Chinese swimmers had tested positive for doping, prompting Chinese officials to admit to the problem. This comes after a history of crude, Russian-style doping in the 1990s, when many Chinese swimmers (and other athletes) were caught cheating at international events.
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