Originally created 01/09/98

Chinese swimmer in hot water over drugs



PERTH, Australia (AP) -- A Chinese swimmer was caught carrying 13 vials labeled as a banned performance enhancer as she arrived for the world championships Thursday.

Critics said the discovery supports their claims that recent record times by Chinese athletes were the result of drugs.

"This time they've been caught with their hands in the cookie jar," Australian coach Don Talbot said.

Australian Customs officials said Yuan Yuan, a breaststroker who won a silver medal at the 1994 world championships, was found with the vials at the Sydney airport on her way to Perth.

John Hawksworth, a customs spokesman, said the single-dose vials were clearly marked as Somatropin, a human growth hormone that can help build muscles and for which officials say there is no foolproof test. They came packed in ice and were accompanied by 13 vials of diluting fluid, Hawksworth said.

The substance in the vials would be analyzed Friday to see exactly what it was, customs officials said.

Hawksworth said a Chinese coach told officials he had packed the bag. A journalist from Hong Kong Star Television traveling in the same group identified the coach as Zhou Ming and said Ming had remained in Sydney.

But a Chinese team official put the blame on Yuan, saying she was bringing the substance in for a friend in Australia.

If the substance is found to be a banned drug, Yuan would face expulsion from the world championships and a four-year ban from competition. Officials from other countries said the whole Chinese swimming program faced ridicule.

"It is going to be hard for them to stand up there on the rostrum after what has happened knowing everyone is going to be accusing them of taking drugs," British swimming chief Deryk Snelling said.

FINA, swimming's world governing body, said it would not comment until the samples had been tested. And members of the U.S. team, which last year sought to have all Chinese swimmers tested for drugs before the meet, said they were trying to focus on the competition.

"We'll see if the Chinese women win a lot of medals, but there is nothing we can do about it," said Jon Olsen, a U.S. freestyler and co-captain from Jonesboro, Ark.

Since 1990, 23 Chinese swimmers have tested positive for banned drugs, more than from all other countries combined.

Yuan and her teammates dominated the last world championships in Rome in 1994, winning 12 of 16 women's events. But two months later, seven Chinese swimmers, including two world champions, tested positive for steroids at the Asian Games in Hiroshima.

Suspicions of drug use again surfaced after the recent Chinese National Games, where two world records were set and 1997-best times were recorded in eight of 13 individual women's events.

John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, said his group has known for months that Chinese swimmers had switched from steroids to human growth hormone to enhance performance.

Human growth hormone can improve muscle strength and size. But it also can cause serious side effects, including grotesquely overgrown hands, feet and face.

"This is a clear indication that there's mass coordinated cheating going on in China," Leonard said.

Chinese team leader Shi Tianshu said Tuesday his country was clean on the drug issue.

"We compare with any nation in the fight against drugs," he said. "If all associations and federations adopted our attitude, it would be a fairer sport."

When Yuan arrived in Perth, she had to push her way through reporters. The Chinese team bus was escorted by seven police cars on its way to the hotel, where authorities earlier delivered bulletproof vests as a security measure.