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Thursday, January 15, 1998 Published at 17:27 GMT

Special Report

Endless battle to outsmart the dopes

The suspension of four Chinese swimmers for failing a drugs test and the discovery of a banned human growth hormone in the baggage of another Chinese competitor has overshadowed the World Championships in Perth, Australia. BBC Sports Correspondent Harry Peart examines the issue of drugs in sport.

The incidents in Australia have highlighted the continued battle between competitors who want to use performance enhancing drugs and the drug testing authorities.

Testing procedures have become more sophisticated, but some substances, including human growth hormone, remain elusive to detection.

Two years ago at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, new sensitive drug detection equipment was introduced. It was claimed that the new high resolution spectrometer was three times more sensitive than the one used at the Barcelona Olympics, and could detect substances in the body several months after being taken.

But the tests relied on urine samples, and the latest performance enhancing drugs, intended to replace anabolic steroids cannot be detected in urine.

The two new types of drugs are synthetic agents but occur naturally in the body. Human growth hormone (HGH) is known as the "drug of champions" because it is claimed that it is the favourite of some of the top athletes.

"Only the stupid or poor take steroids now" revealed one athlete.

[ image: Yuan Yuan received a four-year ban for smuggling human growth hormone]
Yuan Yuan received a four-year ban for smuggling human growth hormone
HGH was produced 30 years ago from human corpses to treat children with growth problems. It was banned 12 years ago, but was replaced by a cheaper synthetic version.

The drug mimics all the properties of steroids, helping an athlete to train harder and build up strength and body mass. It can be administered by injection to provide a huge boost to their strength and powers of recovery. But because it is a naturally occurring substance in the body there is no approved test.

The other drug of concern to the sporting world is erythropoetin (EPO). Originally designed to treat patients with kidney disorders, it mimics the effects of training at high altitude by boosting the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, giving athletes higher levels of endurance.

The sudden deaths of several cyclists have been linked to taking EPO. Like HGH it is a banned substance, but testing is difficult because legitimate high altitude training, common among many endurance athletes, produces identical effects.

Both EPO and HGH are widely available to athletes seeking to improve their performances.

Some nations want to introduce blood test rather than urine, but others have objections to the procedure on ethical grounds.

This week the swimming authorities decided to maintain their four-year ban for drug abuse in a bid to improve the image of the sport tainted by the revelations of systematic doping in the former East Germany, and the spate of positive tests from Chinese swimmers at the Asian Games four years ago.

[ image: Zhang Yi tested positive for diuretics, a banned subtance]
Zhang Yi tested positive for diuretics, a banned subtance
Suspicions of drug use surfaced again after Chinese women swimmers set two world records and topped the world rankings in eight of the 13 individual events at the recent national championships in Shangai. Critics contrast their perfomance at home with their failure to make any notable impact on the current world championships in Perth.

There have been calls from some nations, notably Australia for the entire Chinese team to be sent home amidst accusations that China is involved in systematic doping on an East German scale

China denies the allegations and point to their training programme which has had 7000 swimming pools constructed in the past two years.

And it would be virtually impossible to construct a system in China in any way comparable with East Germany.

[ image: The General-Secretary of the Chinese Swimming Association, Yuan Jia Wei, had to apologise]
The General-Secretary of the Chinese Swimming Association, Yuan Jia Wei, had to apologise
East Germany had a meticulous method of tracking every athlete and which drugs were used. It also had its own accredited testing laboratory which could ensure that every athlete going abroad was drug-free.

Chinese sporting authorities are upset that they are being accused of having a national doping programme. They maintain that it is the individuals who are to blame.

Chinese athletes were certainly targeted by the drug testing authorities on arrival in Australia, which has led to claims that there were many from other nations who could have slipped through the net.

At the moment the blame for drug scandals is being heaped on China, but it would be complacent and untrue to suggest that the rest of the world has drug-free sport.


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