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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Beijing 2008 and doping

Can Beijing 2008 possibly emerge untainted by doping? We doubt it...

Two days ago, we did a post on some interesting news concerning the Beijing Olympic Marathon, which included a story of how the third and final spot on the Chinese Olympic team for the women's marathon was claimed.

This third and final member of the team, who earns her spot on the team by virtue of winning the Xiamen Marathon this past weekend is Zhang Yingying. And in that race, the 18-year old Zhang, running her third marathon, broke the women's world junior record with an extra-ordinary time of 2:22:38. Her own Personal Best had stood at 2:27:20, which was set three months ago in what was her second marathon.

So we have a five-minute improvement on a PB, from an 18-year old who has little to no history of running great performances in an event that is typically dominated by athletes in their early 30's who have a pedigree of running on the track...

Would it be excessively cynical for me to immediately have visions of turtle blood and other doping practices? Yes, out of a nation of a billion people, it is possible that you'll get this type of talent emerging, but we're leaning towards the other option on this one.

Given the history of the Chinese for producing world class athletes powered by turtle blood, dried caterpillars, and other concoctions, scepticism might be well placed. It most definitely will not be the last time we speak of Chinese athletes and doping allegations in 2008.

Some interesting information from a reader

And then added to that, we received a very helpful email from a reader who is based in China (and runs his own blog - Run back by 7).

In his email, he referred us to the following excerpt from a newspaper:

Curiously, the Xiamen race winner Zhang and Bai Xue, the winner of October's Beijing marathon - who was the runner-up in Xiamen - were not included on the short list (of Potential Olympic Team members).

"Though they have shown blistering form recently, they don't have the trust of sports officials in Beijing because of their link with Wang Dexian," said a source.

Bai and Zhang train under Wang Deming, the younger brother of the disgraced Wang Dexian. That relationship has apparently caused concern among the officials wary of any possible doping fallout before and during the Olympics.
So it seems that despite winning the Xiamen Marathon and qualifying for the Olympic marathon team, Zhang's place is questioned over the possible doping controversies...

What is more interesting to me is the emergence of another coach - Wang Dexian. The famous Chinese coach of the early 1990's was Ma Junren - he of the turtle blood excuse when three of his athletes tested positive for EPO! But this is a new name and I think the story highlights the massive problems the Chinese officials have.

To begin with, we assume that the officials are not complicit in doping, although it would not be the first time that a state-run programme produced results through systematic doping. But even assuming this, there are clearly massive problems. The Chinese system is so shrouded in mystery (to the West, anyway) that to know just what is going on is near impossible.

A few months ago, we did a post or two on the massive steroid bust in the USA - Operation Raw Deal. In that sequence of stories, it emerged that much of the world's banned substance trade seems to originate in China, where raw materials for the manufacture of undetectable, banned substances are freely available at ridiculously low prices.

Undetectable drugs, designer products that have likely never even been seen before by IOC laboratories, are almost certain to be available by the Olympic Games. Experts have warned that by Beijing 2008, "100 undetectable drugs will be available".
Now, this may well be hyperbole, but even five undetectable drugs will create havoc with the Olympic Games and it's a very ominous shadow on the horizon.

The Chinese women of the 1990's - is there more to come in 2008?

The Chinese women of the 1990's came, saw, conquered, and then disappeared, leaving only unbreakable records as evidence of their presence on the world stage. Most people are aware that the records are suspect, but when you look at the facts and numbers, it jumps out just how unbelievable the year of 1993 was for women's running. Just take a look at the world records for the women's middle and long distance events:

  • Qu Yunxia is 2 seconds faster than any runner not from China.
  • The four fastest times in history are all Chinese and all were set in 1993.
  • No one has run within 5 seconds of these times since then, and you know that the Eastern Europeans who used to hold the records here were tainted by drugs to begin with!


  • The Top 7 times in history belong to Chinese women.
  • All seven times were set in 1993.The next fastest person is a full 15 seconds behind the world record holder.
10 000m
  • Wang Junxia (also the holder of the 3000m WR) stands a full 30 seconds clear of the second fastest person in history
  • The record was also set in 1993, the year of the Turtle blood and caterpillar treatment
Records that will never be broken then - unless, perhaps, the Chinese women can break them in 2008?



Anonymous said...

Ross and Johnathon, as usual, very insightful article on these Chinese performances.

A few comments/questions, somewhat unrelated but I've been reading all your past blogs with great interest.

I was a triathlete between the ages of about 20-28. I finsihed in the top 10 at world championships three times as an elite. I was born in 1965 and am now 42 years old.

I have been running for the past 8 years after some time off. I don't have the time to train I once did and typically my week consists of 15miles on Saturday, 15 miles on Sunday and an 8 mile tempo run on Wednesday. Occasionally I'll get one other easy 1hr run in during the week. I have been doing marathons and ultramarathons for about the past 6 years. Typically I do 50k's in anywhere from 3:30 to 4:00 depending on the course. My 50 mile time is anywhere from 6hrs to 7:20 depending on the course and my fitness. My marathon is about 2:35 to about 2:50.

All preamble around any insight you may have around these topics. I'd love to see you guys write about more detail regarding athletes that are serious but aging. I am a relatively big guy for a runner (185lbs/84kg)and I have gained weight over the years despite keeping my exercise relatively constant. In my 20's I was about 170lbs and (6.4% body fat by underwater weight method - 74% Vo2max). In my 30's I could not get below 176 and in my 40's I all of a sudden seem to have a 'set-point' at about 184 or so. Obviously this extra weight affects my running performance.

I'd like to understand more about the impacts of metabolism on weight as you age for example. I have purposely worked out on whole body exercises (plyometrics) to not lose muscle as I age, but this seems to have done little for me.

It seems that keeping my activity constant, changes in diet have little effect.

Thanks very much for your site.

A few things I feel like I've learned anecdotaly over time for your consideration...

Fluid intake and muscle strength dramatically impacts muscle cramping. When I cramp at the end of a 50k (which is almost always), it occurs in the smaller muscles that do not recieve the same training as heavily used muscles. In other words if you are going fast enough on a hilly trail course it is almost impossible to keep fluid intake as high as you'll need it for the whole 50k. My quads are muscular and well trained and they never cramp in a race unless I am really dehydrated. However, the smaller muscles, inside hamstrings (gracilus, adductor magnus) cramp as soon as I start to climb a hill. When I work out those muscles over the winter, they don't cramp in races in the summer.

My biggest performance issue in almost any race is what I believe to be the depletion of brain glycogen. I drink too much (4-8 drinks - Vodka, wine per night, 7 days a week) I suspect this has something to do with my brain glycogen issue. Symptoms are the drained dizzy feeling, despite the rest of my body feeling fine. Being an ultra runner I consume one gel (typically long-chain maltodextrin based) every 1/2 hr, hungry or not.

Thanks for any help.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Robin

Thanks for the feedback and the suggestion about a series for the future

We certainly do have plans for a series of posts on ageing in athletes. As I'm sure you can appreciate, the field of sports sciences is still developing (it's a pretty young branch of science, relatively speaking) and one area where a lot of growth needs to still happen is in the area of ageing.

So what is missing, and should come in due course, is a longitudinal study on people like yourself, from the age of 20 up til about 60, so we're talking a 40 year study, looking at changes in performance, muscle mass etc.

We do however, that the biggest change is the loss of muscle mass that occurs with age. That has numerous knock-on effects which includes the increase in body fat percentage with age.

In one sense, you can't ever reverse this, fighting physiology is futile in that regard. There are things you can do - I'm not sure that plyometrics is the way to go about it though, because plyometrics involve rapid contraction with little load. They're great for neurmuscular adaptations, but not necessarily muscle mass. Getting into the gym and doing some weight work is more likely to make a difference, so you might try that if you can squeeze any time out of your week!

But a series will be insightful. At this stage, we're in the fortunate position of having about 4 or 5 series that we have scheduled, but we'll get to this one and then do a little more reading up on it (it's an area I must confess my knowledge is a little thin on) and make it a worthwhile read for everyone.

So bear with us, it'll come eventually!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Robin, and thanks for reading The Science of Sport.

We try to keep the comments relevant to the post, but I will try to answer some of your questions here.

You say you want to know more about the effects of metabolic rate on age, but the physiology works the other way---your age effects your metabolic rate, and pretty much everything else in your body. Unfortunately at 40 you will not have the same body that you did at 20.

First, the amount of lean mass one has is the best predictor of one's metabolic rate. In other words, the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate.

Next, the general effect is that one experiences a gradual decrease in lean mass with age. This gradual decrease can be blunted, but not entirely stopped, with regular and specific resistance training.

However as you age your body will change, and you can definitely expect to put on some weight and become less lean. In your case this has been pretty minor---about 10% over twenty years, or only about 0.5% change on average per year.

So perhaps shift your expectations, and realize that your body will continue to change. At the same time, being so active will only benefit you as it will help attenuate the gradual decline in lean mass with age. However, I agree with Ross---the plyometrics are likely of little benefit in this area and resistance training will help prevent the decline in lean mass much better than plyometrics.

On a general health note, your alcohol consumption is excessive and falls outside the moderate range that is normally associated with longevity and better health. Therefore I would recommend reducing this consumption to 1-2 drinks per day at the most.

Good luck!

Kind Regards,

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hey Outdoor Enthusiast

Thanks for the email and your comments (on this post and the Cricket one!)

As far as a series on drugs in sport goes, I have a feeling that the topic will be coming up many times in 2008! The Olympics tends to shine a spotlight on the sport that exposes its darker side and we'll do our best to dig into that as well.

But we actually have done a few posts on the topic already.

The "series" began on 23 June 2007 and we did perhaps 4 or 5 consecutive posts on the topic, all pertaining to the 2007 Tour de France.

Then if you jump ahead to 24 July 2007, you'll be able to pick up some more commentary on the Tour de France, which was, as usual, affected by drugs. There's about a week's worth of comments and analysis of drugs starting on the 24th July.

And then finally, there were one or two posts on 27 September 2007 dealing with a massive steroid operation in the USA.

You can find all these posts by date on the right hand side of the page, about half way down.

It's probably not a comprehensive answer to your questions, but I'm sure it will cover some of the questions and maybe stimulate some more.

And then finally, as for suggestions for future posts and series, we're very open to it! In fact, we love to hear the ideas from readers, it helps us have dialoge (as opposed to monologue).

So this particular suggestion has been filed and duly noted for the future, and any other suggestions, you can make the same way - just drop a comment to any post and make them there!

ENjoy the drugs posts!


Anonymous said...

A really interesting perspective and, although not entirely relevant, it reminds me of an experience I had as a coach in professional soccer here in the UK. We signed a Chinese player a few years ago, and at that time, to play pro-soccer in China, the athletes had to achieve a certain standard in the Cooper Run fitness test.
Obviously we thought we had an athlete of a decent fitness, and he had showed a good level of playing skill. However, during our own fitness testing of the squad it emerged that his fitness was considerably lacking. The story eventually emerged that both he and a friend had bribed the officals in China to give them a pass in previous fitness tests, thus making them eligible to play.
Consequently, I am afraid that when I read your comment on the 'trustworthyness' of officials I am afraid my cynicism yet again peaked.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hey Anonymous

Thanks for the input. Interesting story - when I first read the reports about the Beijing Officials wanting to distance themselves for the runner who won the Xiamen Marathon, I was also sceptical. But I think that what is probably happening is that in China, there is the Beijing Committee which has nothing to do with the athletes and whose only incentive is a clean, successful games, but they'll probably end up in direct conflict with the coaches, athletes and whichever management structures are involved, whose incentive is winning gold medals!

So like you, I'm very sceptical - I believe that in order for the revolution in a whole nation's sporting performance to be achieved, you have to have state involvement. So I feel almost certain there is collusion at some level - a blind eye, perhaps, at the very best, but possibly state run programmes. As I said, wouldn't be the first time, and with so much riding on success and with so much money invested into Chinese sporting success by the government, I would be very surprised to see any stone left unturned, even if that stone happens be doping!

Time will tell - 2008 may be a tumultuous year!


Anonymous said...

Absolute proof India are Hypocrits

Watch the videos

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

I was reading an article in Newsweek last night. The magazine dedicated an entire issue to China, and this text was about the Olympics.

It stated that their aim was to be the top GOLD medal country. Total medals was not a concern for them, but instead their emphasis is on winning gold in as many events as possible.

Even non-cynics might agree that to be winning an Olympic event, one must be doping. To get there and make the finals, perhaps not, but to win? Almost certainly.

So yes, Ross, I agree---a blind eye by the officials is probably the least of their involvement. China also seems to have "disposable" athletes that break records and then fade away during what should be their prime years, which would suggest that there is more orchestration to the whole thing than might appear on the surface.

Time will tell, though, and it will be a very interesting Olympics on many levels.

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

In the article, why is there no mention of the women's 5,000m record? It was also held by a Chinese woman, Jiang Bo, from the 1997 National Games. The time was 14:28.09, also seemingly in the league of the slew of records set by the incredible Chinese women. She broke Ribeiro’s record by 8 seconds then. Since then, Meseret Defar has broken it twice with 14:24.53 (2006) and 14:16.63 (world record, 2007). The second mark is some 6 seconds behind.

Paula Radcliffe holds the three fastest times in history for the marathon. The second fastest runner has a best time at least 3 minutes behind her.

Ingrid Kristiansen held the three best times in 10,000m since 1986. Her nearest rival was more than 30 seconds behind for at least seven years until Wang’s record in 1993. Up to now, there are six runners with times between Kristiansen and Wang.

The Chinese record holder for 1500m, Qu Yunxia, had recorded times of 3:50.46 (world record, 1993), 3:55.38 (1997) and 3:57.08 (1992). Truly flash in the pan?

Women’s running is still in the infancy compared to men’s running. Records are superlative performances and while they may seem incredible, we should not readily dismiss them as “dirty”, though there could be the strong possibility. Women such as Defar, Radcliffe, Kristiansen, Qu and Wang are certainly talented runners.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Patrick

The women's 5000m record was very soft, Chinese or not. When Ribeiro held it, it was so weak, and waiting to be broken.

And when you look at it now, it's still up for revision. That 10,000m world record, held by the Chinese runner Wang, stands at 29:30. That is completely out of relative proportion compared to the 5000m record - the women's 5000m record should be in the low 14-min range - 14:10 or below. So Defar has only moved it along the time curve.

As for flash in the pan, I wouldn't say that. But I would say that you'd have a hard time justifying that they are not. Wait until Beijing 2008, you'll see the same thing happening again. The thing is, after the fall of the Wall, all those scientists and doctors who had very overtly and obviously contributed to the East German dominance, headed East, to Beijing. I have no doubt, but of course, that may not be provable (apart from the slew of positive tests returned by Chinese atheltes before they "disappeared"), and so many will deny it.

Fact of the matter is, if you're that good, good enough to run 5 or 6 seconds faster than anyone else over 1500m (or an incredible 15 seconds over 3000m, then you don't only run 3 good times - you have a career lasting ten years, full of Olympic and World titles. Instead, what we see here is a series of times run in Beijing, where doping control is a myth. So it's not flash in the pan, it's quite easy to understand.

Anonymous said...

Well, its not just running...Two years ago, China showed up at the Mountain Bike World cup with 3 riders, all in the beginning of their 20ies and placed within the top 10 straight away, without any experience in international racing. In MTB , it usually takes years to reach the top, the best women competitors are in their 30ties or older..
Later last year, I was personnaly witnessing the gruesome experience at MTB worlds in NZ, where two chinese girls lead the field by several minutes (!) in the under 23 race, whilst normally, the gaps in MTB races are rarely over 30 seconds..

Its the same in all sports and as long as China does not have a credible, independant anti-doping system, I refuse to believe in any performance they deliver.
Imagine beeing a Wada drug tester trying to test a chinese athlete. If you ever manage to get in the country for that purpose and even make it to the residence of the athlete, you cannot be sure you are actually testing the athlete and not her sister/ brother or the cleaning women..They all look alike to us europeans..

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment concerning the Chinese performances in the MTB discipline.

Your point is well taken that the Chinese might not have a robust anti-doping organization, and this might contribute to rampant drug (ab)use among Chinese athletes.

However, when posting here on The Science of Sport please can you try to avoid using racial and ethnic stereotypes? By implying that all Chinese look exactly the same, we neglect their individuality as people and disrespect them as a culture, nation, and race.

Instead, let's try to stick to the scientific debate.

Thanks again for visiting.

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...