China’s doped ascent to sports superpower

Doctor reports systematic doping

China’s doped ascent to sports superpower

Von Florian Riesewieck, Hajo Seppelt und Christian Siepmann

All medals won by Chinese athletes in the 1980s and 1990s should be withdrawn, demands Xue Yinxian. The doctor knows sport in China from the inside, and reports systematic doping.

Xue Yinxian

Xue Yinxian

Because Xue Yinxian spoke the truth, she had to leave China, her home. For decades, the 79-year-old doctor had lived in Beijing, but a few weeks ago she arrived at a refugee shelter in Germany. She has requested political asylum, as has her son. Xue Yinxian’s story destroys a Chinese myth: for over two decades, the success of the country’s top athletes was founded on fraud, the physician claims. Since she first made this statement in 2012, she has not felt safe in her home city of Beijing, says Xue Yinxian. She was harassed by the government.

The physician’s report is as clear as it is explosive. “In the 1980s and 90s, Chinese athletes on the national teams made extensive use of doping substances. Medals were showered in doping. Gold, silver and bronze. All international medals should be withdrawn”, she told ARD Sportschau. She is speaking about precisely the period in which China ascended as a global sports superpower. Xue Yinxian experienced this ascent first-hand: starting in the 1970s, she was one of the physicians looking after several national teams in her home country, in particular, the successful gymnasts and their world star, Li Ning.

More than 10,000 people

The system of doping, according to Xue Yinxian, extended far beyond the national teams. Even in regional teams, this type of cheating in athletics was the order of the day. “It must have been more than 10,000 people. They believed only in doping. Taking doping substances means defending your country, they said. If you were against doping, you were a danger to the country. And anyone who endangered the country is now in prison”, the physician reports.

Doping controls in China at that time only had one purpose, reports Xue Yinxian: to make sure that athletes could travel to competitions without being caught. If the drugs were no longer in their bodies, they communicated this with a code: “Grandma is home.” The real inspectors were then unable to prove anything.

Xue Yinxian says that she was against doping - and that this cost her the job as Chief Physician to the national teams. She was asked to treat a top athlete with doping substances ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. The doctor says that she refused to do so: “I wanted the national gymnastics team to be a doping-free zone. I refused to inject a well-known athlete with doping substances. After that, I was no longer allowed to lead my team. In 1988, I still accompanied the national gymnastics team to the Olympic Games in Seoul. After the gymnasts had competed, I was immediately isolated. I wasn’t allowed to treat any more athletes.”

Medals: international prestige object

Kristin Shi-Kupfer is a scientist and the Director of the Research Area on Politics, Society, Media at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. She explains that medals are of great political importance to the repressive political system in China. “Sports, and particularly success in sports, for example the actual number of gold medals, is seen as a status symbol, as an international prestige object, and also a sign of legitimacy for this authoritarian system towards its own citizens, but also on the international stage”, Shi-Kupfer told ARD Sportschau. The reversal of the argument also applies: anyone who openly speaks of a weakness or, worse, any malpractice, let alone anyone doing so publicly abroad, causes the government to lose face, which it seeks to avoid at all costs.

This tallies with the experiences Doctor Xue Yinxian has made with this side of the Chinese government, she reports. Ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, eight people visited her at her flat. “They warned me not to speak about the use of doping substances. They urged me to give up. I said, I can’t do that. They wanted to silence me. After the death of my husband, they constantly came to me when there was a sports competition. I was not permitted to talk about it. Sometimes, they would phone at 5 in the morning. Both my sons lost their jobs because of this.”

Xue Yinxian’s son reports other attempts at intimidation by the Chinese government directed at his family: police cars stationed outside their home. And several times, they tried to confiscate Xue Yinxian’s evidence for her statements, for example the diaries that she kept during her career as a physician.

The youngest were only eleven years old

The medical professional’s records give an insight into the impact of doping on the athletes. The sportspeople told the doctor about gaining weight, and about losing their motivation to train. Xue Yinxian knows more frightening details about the health implications of athletic fraud: “If anyone refused doping, they were thrown out of the team. The children’s teams were the first to be given the drugs. The youngest were only eleven years old. I couldn’t do anything about it. They only approached me once there were problems. One trainer came to me and said: Doctor Xue, the boys’ breasts keep getting bigger. These boys were about 13 to 14 years old. I asked: how did this happen? And he said: it’s because of the substances that Chen Zhanghao gave them.” Chen Zhanghao was the Chief Physician to the Chinese national teams. As early as 2012, he had admitted that doping took place in China.

What Xue Yinxian, who is now 79 years old, says is in reference to the years before this. Whether the system of doping that she describes, or something similar, continues to be in place, is something the physician can’t judge - she was ejected from the top of the athletic system in 1988, but continued to work on lower levels for many years. Over the last two decades, and even in the recent past, many Chinese athletes were discovered to be doping. For example, as recently as January 2017, three female weight lifters lost their gold medals, which they had won unfairly during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

ARD Sportschau requested statements from the Chinese Olympic Committee and the Minister for Sports about the accusations of doping made by former sports physician, Xue Yinxian. Neither institution responded to this request. Meanwhile, Beijing is once again preparing for the Olympic Games: in 2022, athletes will compete there for the Winter Olympics. So far, China has not been well-known for its winter sports.

Having escaped to Germany, Xue Yinxian has finished with big-time sports. “Our old Chairman Mao Zedong used to say that sport makes people healthier. But with doping in sports, many generations will suffer damage”, says the 79-year-old doctor. She knows the health consequences of this kind of fraud only too well.

Stand: 21.10.2017, 16:51

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