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Sieren's China

Frank Sieren / ct
February 18, 2016

Chinese Olympian and world record holder Wang Junxia took performance-enhancing drugs. But the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has more pressing matters, says DW's Frank Sieren.


Tough training, dried and powdered sea horse and turtle blood - this, according to her trainer, Ma Junren, is what lay behind the world records of the long-distance runner Wang Junxia. In 1993, she set both the 10,000m and the 3,000m world records. It all seemed a bit suspicious at the time. Now, a letter in which Wang and other athletes claim that they were forced to take huge amounts of illegal substances by their trainer has come to light.

Ma was notorious for taking drastic measures, such as hitting athletes who refused to take drugs and even injecting them by force himself. "We are humans, not animals," the letter reads. The athletes allegedly are aware that China's reputation could be harmed by doping allegations and feel guilty. The IAAF has launched an investigation to verify the letter's veracity, with the help of the Chinese Athletics Association.

Chinese athletes had pangs of guilt

China now has a doping scandal akin to the "Team Telekom" affair that rocked German cycling in the 1990s. With some differences: As opposed to Wang and her fellow athletes, no cyclist in Germany seemed so troubled by guilt that he or she felt compelled to write a letter that risked annoying both the party and state. Most of the German athletes involved in doping blamed others and not before they were caught. There are no cases in West Germany of athletes having been forced to take part in doping programs, let alone ones in which the state played a role.

What makes this letter interesting is that the Chinese athletes were aware that it was wrong to take performance-enhancing drugs. There are no such statements made by Lance Armstrong from the US, Jan Ullrich from Germany or Bjarne Riis from Denmark. The latter only expressed remorse after he was exposed, more than 10 years after claiming victory for Team Telekom at the 1996 Tour de France. In 2007, he said that he had done things which he regretted and "would not do again," namely take drugs. The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) reacted in quite a relaxed way, not stripping him of the title because there was an eight-year statute of limitations for doping offenses.

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China
DW columnist Frank SierenImage: Frank Sieren

Other dubious world records

The IAAF will not make use of Wang's confession to wipe the slate clean and set the record straight. This would only work by setting some records straight at home. In 1988, Florence Griffith-Joyner broke the women's 100m world record. She was also suspected of doping. Ten years later, at the age of only 38 she choked to death as the result of an epileptic seizure. Whether steroids might have played a part in her death was never clarified.

At the end of the last millennium, the German vice president of the IAAF made a clever suggestion: He said that all dubious records should be disregarded and the slate should be wiped clean so that there could be a fresh start in 2000. However, there were objections from the US because this would have made a difference to the number of medals. It is incredible that this clever suggestion was not implemented. It would surely have implied too much of a confession. Now, the IAAF is so caught up in its own quagmire that there's hardly any time to deal with the Chinese case. Because of the widespread corruption allegations, the food giant Nestlé, like Adidas, intends to withdraw its sponsorship.

China case is one of many

This week the pressure is on Papa Massata Diack, who, regardless of the first name, is the son of Lamine Diack, the president of the IAAF from 1999 to 2015. Both are currently under investigation for extorting bribes from athletes to cover up doping. Interpol has issued a wanted notice for the son. If anyone in Beijing wanted a clean slate to be wiped by allowing the publication of the letter then the timing is perfect. The IAAF is so involved with putting out its own fire that it's hardly going to be worried about a few flames in China.

DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.

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