By JOHN LEICESTER -- Associated Press
BEIJING -- Seated in a bar snorting snuff, sipping beer and flicking back his long hair, Nils Lindstedt looks an unlikely drug enforcer.
But when he demands a urine sample, Chinese athletes must comply.
Swimmers, runners, rowers, weightlifters -- the stars of today and the hopefuls of tomorrow -- all get tested by the tall, relaxed Swede. As a foreign doping tester based in China, Lindstedt has an inside track on the drug-tainted Chinese sports machine. So when he says he's not expecting another Chinese scandal at the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 Sydney Olympics, his words carry weight.
"I'm quite sure that there will not be any positive tests in Sydney," Lindstedt said in an interview. "They can't afford the loss of face."
For China, the pressure is on. Another scandal would set back progress in overcoming its drug-soiled past and could damage Beijing's hopes of winning a vote next year to hold the 2008 Olympics.
Perhaps no group of athletes at Sydney will be more scrutinized than China's swimmers. The 1990s were a decade of shame and glory for Chinese swimming, with world-beating performances overshadowed by the worst doping record in the world.
Thirty-two Chinese swimmers were caught for drug offenses in the 1990s, two of them twice, and another three were disqualified from a domestic competition for having excessive red blood cell counts, according to "Swimming's Hall of Shame," a history of doping offenses by Brent Rushall, a sports scientist at San Diego State University.
In contrast, the next worst offenders, according to Rushall's calculations, were the seven Soviet or Russian swimmers who have failed tests since 1978. He also counted seven Americans testing positive since 1972, with two escaping with warnings.
Banned substances are no harder to get in China than in other countries, said Lindstedt, whose firm conducts tests for international organizations that govern sports. Posters advertising performance-enhancing drugs appeared recently in some Chinese universities, state media reported.
But despite foreign suspicions to the contrary, Chinese sports officials deny ever having run a systematic East German-like doping program, even though at least one East German coach did help China's swimming program.
Instead, officials blame individuals.
"In China, we have a saying: 'A rat's dropping can spoil a whole cauldron of soup,"' Zhang Qiuping, vice chairman of the China Swimming Association, said in an interview. "It's true that in the past, a few athletes, a few individuals, gave us a very bad image. The worst was Perth."
Australian customs inspectors' discovery of 13 vials of growth hormone hidden in Chinese swimmer Yuan Yuan's luggage soured the World Swimming Championships in Perth in 1998. Deepening the disgrace, four other Chinese tested positive for a banned diuretic used to mask steroid abuse.
The scandal led China to institute what swimming officials say is the world's toughest anti-doping regime. New rules threaten Chinese swimmers with a possible life ban, if officials deem it necessary, for a first-time steroid offense -- tougher than the minimum four-year suspension required by swimming's governing body, FINA.
To curb the greed officials say leads swimmers and coaches to turn to drugs, China also instituted rules to withhold 80 percent of swimmers' prize money for four years. If they test positive during that time, they forfeit the money.
China also stepped up testing of swimmers, performing 699 tests last year, a 16 percent increase over 1998. All were negative, Zhang said. Of FINA's 191 out-of-competition tests in Asia last year, 143 -- or nearly 75 percent -- were on Chinese swimmers. Two tested positive for a muscle-building chemical and were banned for three years.
China's reinforced anti-doping efforts have won recognition abroad, although questions remain. The past scandals have also left Chinese swimmers in a difficult position: If they swim well, suspicions of cheating resurface, but if they bomb, it's assumed anti-doping measures must be working.
"These things take time. People were slow to catch onto the fact that China was doping. Now they are slow to catch on to the fact that it would appear that China is making solid efforts to not have those problems," said John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association.
"But very frankly what scares me is that the motivation behind that is to get the Games in 2008," Leonard added. "That immediately begs the question: what happens once they get the Games?"
For Sydney, China's swimming association has demanded that the team "protect the nation's honor" and ensure that no swimmers test positive. Prospective team members already are training together, presumably allowing officials to keep an eye on them.
In a move toward greater openness, Chinese swimming officials this year also began e-mailing results from major domestic competitions to a Canadian magazine that compiles FINA's world rankings.
In the past, sudden international breakthroughs by swimmers few outside China had heard of fueled suspicions of doping. How else, critics suggested, could they improve so quickly?
"People think, 'Wow, I've never seen them before, and they're so good,"' said Zhang, the Chinese official. "In foreigners' eyes, that athlete has only just started swimming. But in our eyes, they've been at it for six, seven, eight, even 10 years. So misunderstandings crop up."
Chinese Olympic swimming team
By The Associated Press
A look at possible members of China's Olympic swimming team:
Wu Yanyan's 2 minutes, 14.02 seconds in the 200-meter medley at Olympic trials in May was, as of June 26, the world's third fastest this year but off the 22-year-old's world record of 2:09.72.
Liu Limin, 24, the 100-meter women's butterfly silver medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, won May's trial in 59.86 seconds, only the world's 16th fastest this year and behind Dutch swimmer Inge de Bruijn's world record of 56.69 set May 27.
Wang Luna, 20, came off a two-year ban for doping and won the 200 freestyle in 1:59.44, fifth fastest this year.
Liu Yin, 16, set year's sixth fastest time of 4:43.17 in winning women's 400 medley, beating world record holder Chen Yan.
Chen Yan, 19, swam 4:46.09 in March, ranking 14th and well short of her 1997 record of 4:34.79.
Qi Hui, 15, her 2:25.51 in the 200 breaststroke in May was year's third fastest.
Huang Jun, 18, ranked eighth in women's 200 backstroke with 2:12.22.