The questions made you squirm. A young Chinese woman would come into the press conference, and there would be a few softballs—How did you start swimming? Where do you go to school?—but pretty soon the tough stuff would begin, and there would be no escaping. The questions would be asked in one language—say it was English—and translated into Italian and then translated into Chinese, and then come back down the same long path. Minutes would seem to stretch into grim hours.
"How do you account for the fact that female Chinese swimmers have been so successful so fast?" a reporter would ask. "Many people accuse your swimmers of doping. What do you say to this?"
Response in Chinese.
"I would like to attribute our success to the brilliant coaches we have as well as to the hard work we do," someone like Le Jingyi—world-record-setting winner of the 50-and 100-meter freestyles, member of the world-record-setting 4 X 100 freestyle and 4 X 100 medley relay teams, clearly the star of last week's VII Swimming World Championships in Rome—would reply. "I am very angry about the accusations of doping. I think the main reason is that some people are jealous."
The awkward trilingual ballet of accusation and denial never varied. The Chinese women would do wondrous things every night in the bright water of the Foro Italico pool, winning 12 of 16 events, setting five world records, and then they would sit at a table in a long, narrow room, with their yellow victory flowers in their hands, and undergo this joyless interrogation. The weeklong championships—held every four years and second only to the Olympics in importance-were supposed to be a celebration of aquatic achievement, but there was little celebration of anything. Only suspicion.
Are these Chinese women—girls, really, the eldest being 19 years old—one of the stirring athletic success stories of our time? Or are they flat-out cheaters whose drug use and undetected masking agents have brought them the same success that East Germany enjoyed before the Berlin Wall came down and the truth about their success emerged? Circumstantial evidence mixed with doubts about testing have once again clouded the sport.
"A lot of our kids didn't want to stand when the Chinese national anthem was played," U.S. women's coach Richard Quick said last week. "We talked about it at a team meeting. We decided to stand, to honor the sport."
The prosecution's case, put forward loudly by U.S. officials but seconded by those of many other countries, was that we had seen all this before. Take the fast rise of the East German women swimmers in the 1970s and '80s and place it over the seemingly sudden emergence of the Chinese, and you have what looks like a perfect fit. The East Germans appeared on the scene in waves, several swimmers suddenly knocking off world records in quick order. Well, the Chinese are no different. East Germany's heroics were largely confined to the women, while the East German men, presumably helped less by anabolic steroids, weren't nearly as accomplished. Well, the Chinese men are less accomplished still, none even making a final in Rome. Last Germans occasionally skipped major competitions, probably worried about what would show up in postrace testing. Well, the Chinese also skip certain competitions. The East Germans were guilty of drug use, their coaches ultimately admitted. Well, in the last two years four Chinese women swimmers have failed drug tests.
"For 20 years our entire sport kept quiet about the Germans because we couldn't prove anything," Quick said. "The Americans who complained were brutalized in the press, called whiners. Shirley Babashoff [the U.S. star who was outswum by her East German rivals at the 1976 Olympics] complained, and everyone talked about sour grapes. I was one of the people who said she should keep quiet. Well, I apologize to Shirley. She was right. For 20 years our kids were cheated out of things they should have won, and we just sat still. I'm not sitting still now."
The defense presented by the Chinese coaches is that hard, innovative work, not drugs, has produced their champions. Unlike the East Germans, always so secretive during their reign, the Chinese propose openness. If you think we are doing something wrong, come visit our country, come watch us train. Yes, there may have been doping violations, but who can control individuals all the time?
"In three of the four drug cases, we were the ones who administered the tests and reported the results," China's coach, Chen Yunpeng, said. "We are against doping. We are for penalties for doping. Come to China. See what we are doing for yourself."
"The training methods of other countries are out of date," said Zhou Ming, one of Chen's assistants. "Because we started late in the sport, not competing in the outside world until 1982, we have been able to use many things. Always in swimming, there were two worlds: the Americans, Australians and Europeans on one side, the Eastern bloc on the other. We studied both sides and took from each. From the Americans we took coaching. The Americans are very good at mental preparation, at using emotion. From the East we took selection of talent, finding girls who are very young and working with them."
The Chinese served notice of big things to come at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. While there had been rumblings that they were developing a program heavy with weightlifting and workouts, their performance at the Games was still a shock. From the first women's race, the 100 freestyle, in which Zhuang Yong blasted past U.S. world-record holder Jenny Thompson, the Chinese were a presence. Their top five women, nicknamed the Five Golden Flowers after a popular Chinese movie of the '50s, earned four gold medals and five silvers.
Amazingly, none of the Golden Mowers came to Rome. Four have retired, and one was not selected for this year's team, which had 12 swimmers illogically nicknamed the 10 Little Flowers. At home were even younger world-class swimmers, nicknamed the 20 Little, Little Flowers, part of the class that will arrive in time for the 1996 Atlanta Games.
"The West had too many older champions here," Zhou said in Rome. "Look at the swimmers from Barcelona, and you will see they did not do well here. Swimming is a four-year cycle. For the Olympics you are at your best, the first year after that you take it easy, the second year is recovery, the third year you push and the fourth you are ready. The Golden Flowers would have been the same as the other Barcelona swimmers if they were here. That is why they are retired, living nice lives."
Zhou has been Le's personal coach for seven years, since Le was 12. The West says the Chinese are overnight sensations? Zhou rolled out Le's best times for each year in the 100 free from memory—1:11 in 1988, 1:03 in '89, 1:00 in '90, 58 seconds in '91, 55.8 in '92, 54.27 in '93—an improvement that continued in Rome, where she swam a world-record 54.01 in the 100 final and turned in a 53.81 relay split as part of China's eye-widening 4:01.67 world record in the 4 X 100 medley relay. Zhou said Le's secret was an athletic body, which he spotted when she was young, plus a lot of work and an athletic disposition.
"She has the right psychology for sports," he said. "If she lost tonight, maybe she would cry for an hour or so, but after that she would be laughing. She does not carry one day into the next. She keeps working."
The detractors, alas, noticed mostly her broad shoulders. How did she develop those shoulders? Reporters spotted acne across her forehead and cheeks. Wasn't that a sign of steroid use? A television production assistant suggested that a tape of her might be shown with subtitles, to allow viewers to listen to her low voice. Wasn't a low voice also a sign of steroids? On and on it went.
The Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport ran a cartoon of a muscular Chinese swimmer named Jing Do-ping. Another paper ran a picture of a Chinese woman's back with the question "Who is this sports celebrity?" One of the possible answers listed was "Mike Tyson."
Before the end of the meet on Sunday, a position statement was issued by swimming officials from 18 countries asking the sport's governing body, FINA, to use "financial resources, manpower and technology" to resolve the "potentially devastating problem" of "the extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs."
"But what'll be done?" one U.S. sports official said. "I don't think the people who run FINA even care. They just want everybody to keep quiet."
The sole U.S. women's gold medal winner was the irrepressible Janet Evans, in the 800 meters. She was asked if she knew any of the young Chinese swimmers, if she had any social contact with them.
"Oh, no," the 23-year-old Evans replied. "I don't even know who they are. What would we talk about?"
She said the U.S. swimmers' relationship with the Chinese was much the same as it had been with the East Germans until the Wall came down: no relationship at all. After that, though, pleasant changes had occurred. Talk began. Everyone laughed and told stories.
"They were funny, it turned out, the East Germans," she said. "One night, after the Wall, three or four of them came through the lobby, and they were all wearing these black leather miniskirts. They said they were going out on the town. They had never been able to do this, all these years. This was their first night out. The next morning we were eating breakfast and the East Germans came through the restaurant, and they were wearing the same black leather miniskirts. They'd been out all night."
Someone asked whether this would happen again. Would the Chinese someday be seen going out for just such a night?
"It'll never happen," Evans replied.
This seemed to be the saddest accusation of all.