BEIJING — The demise of the drug-tainted Chinese swimming team as a world powerhouse has been so great that the nation’s head coach believes his swimmers are unlikely to win a single gold medal at the Sydney Olympics.

In the early 1990s, China’s swimmers emerged from nowhere to stun the world with a series major victories.

At the Barcelona Games in 1992 they won four golds. Two years later, they swamped rivals at the world championships in Rome, winning an amazing 12 out of 16 women’s titles.

Now things have changed.

‘With our standards now, securing even one gold medal is very difficult,’ head coach Zhao Ke told Reuters in an interview late on Monday.

‘There is not one event where we are ranked world number one. For our swimmers to contribute gold medals to China’s entire Olympic team is quite difficult.’

Most Chinese swimmers competing in Sydney in September will be young and promising, but few are near the top of the world rankings and most veterans have lost form.

Cheering stopped

The Chinese troubles began in 1994 at the Asian Games in Hiroshima, when seven swimmers were among 11 Chinese athletes to fail drug tests. And they have not ended.

In May this year Wu Yanyan, China’s highest ranked swimmer and women’s world 200-metres individual medley champion in 1998, tested positive for an anabolic steroid at the Chinese national championships and Olympic qualifiers in Jinan.
Atlanta medallist Liu Limin coming to Sydney
Andrew Wong / Reuters

Zhang Qiuping, vice chairman of the Chinese Swimming Association, said Wu has been banned for four years and fined 8000 yuan (US $967), while her coach Wu Jicai has been banned for a year and fined 4000 yuan.

Zhao said Wu’s positive test and subsequent punishment was evidence that China’s swimming chiefs — under widespread criticism from foreign coaches over repeated doping scandals — were serious about stamping out drugs.

‘Of course, it does have an impact. We don’t want this to happen to anyone. But in fact this episode makes everything very clear, that we are dead against doping,’ Zhao said.

Olympic novices

Only a handful of China’s 25-member Sydney swimming team will be making a second Olympic appearance.

Among them are Chen Yan, world record holder for the women’s 400m individual medley, and Liu Limin, silver medallist at the Atlanta Olympics in the women’s 100m butterfly.

Chen, 20, has lost form through a succession of stomach problems over the last two years and finished a poor fifth at the Jinan qualifiers.

‘Our earlier Olympic batch was higher in world rankings than this batch. This batch is younger, their standards are quite good … but if we compare with Australia, US and Japan, the difference seems stark,’ Zhao said.

China’s most notable absentee will be former 100m freestyle world record holder and two time Olympian Le Jingyi, who won China its only swimming gold in Atlanta in 1996.

Her world record, set at the height of Chinese domination in women’s swimming in 1994, stood until it was broken in May by Dutchwoman Inge de Bruijn at the Super Grand Prix in Sheffield, Britain.

‘Le only decided two months before the Jinan qualifiers to try for a third Olympic appearance, but by then it was too late,’ Zhao said.

Of China’s fresh swimming faces due to take the plunge in Sydney local sports commentators have high hopes for 15-year-old Qi Hui, ranked the world No. 3 in the women’s 200m breaststroke.

Tan Ee Lyn Reuters

Source: SOCOG