July 21, 1996
Spectre of drugs hangs over pool
By CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD -- Toronto Sun
ATLANTA -- The strangest things are happening at the Olympic swimming pool.
Two of the Chinese women, much feared and reviled amid the widespread belief -- and considerable evidence gained from drug tests that saw seven of their best suspended for two years -- that they're using performance-enhancing synthetic testosterone, didn't even make the finals of the 400-individual medley.
Even more astonishing, the two teenagers, Yan Chen and Yanyan Wu, who were respectively ranked first and second in the event this year, each finished more than 13 full seconds behind their best times, an eternity in this sport.
A third Chinese woman, Ying Shan, who was the No.1 ranked woman in the 100-metre freestyle coming into the Games, also missed the final of her event, finishing ninth in the heats.
In the final of the 400 individual medley, in fact, were swimmers ranked 11th, 19th and 41st in the world, and one of them, the 41st-ranked Michelle Smith of Ireland, won the race.
A fourth Chinese woman, meantime, Jingyi Le, who set a world record in the 100-free in the morning heats, did live up to expectations, and went on to win the gold medal last night.
As she took the podium in the first medal ceremony at the lovely pool, which offers tantalizing glimpses of the dramatic Atlanta skyline between bunting that billows in the night breeze, and China's red and yellow flag was raised, beside her on one side was bronze-medal winner Angel Martino of the United States.
It was likely the popular belief of the pro-American crowd, and not without reason as is surely obvious, that Le won the gold because she uses drugs; certainly, Le's reception as she did the victory tour around the pool was subdued.
Yet Martino, who has not so long ago come off a drug suspension herself, was greeted with tremendous applause, and treated like a conquering hero as she strode around the deck behind Le.
Make your head spin, does it?
Such is the state of international sport and thus international swimming. Because of the lack of a single, cohesive, world-wide drug-testing program, because such programs are all over the map, with some countries, like Canada, making it all but impossible for athletes to cheat for any length of time and others, like China, remaining impenetrable, and still others, like the U.S., having uneven, arguably ineffective programs, no one knows who or what to believe anymore.
"If people do better than you, you suspect them. If you do better than them, they suspect you," says Victor Lachance, head of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport and the Canadian Centre for Drug-free Sport. "No one wins, and it undermines the whole benefit we draw from sport."
It is in this unhappy context that Joanne Malar's ostensible failure in the 400-individual medley yesterday ought to be seen.
Malar is a delightful young woman from Hamilton, and going into the heats of her speciality, was the sixth-best in the world in the 400 and on paper the fifth-best at these Games. She was expected to make last night's final, and when she finished ninth, turning in a swim that was her best morning effort (she's at her fastest in the evening, sometimes by as much as 10 seconds) but well off her best-ever time, she was, at least initially, devastated.
But she swam the consolation final last night, turned in a brave and determined effort, smashing her perpetual teammate-cum-rival, Nancy Sweetnam, and won the sucker, and afterward, water beading up on her beautiful brown face, she had it pretty much figured out.
She had had, she pretty much said straight out, a case of nerves. She'd been more nervous and scared than excited, and "wanted to do so well so badly", and she just didn't have it. "Sometimes it happens," she said.
The race last night restored her. "I could breathe again. It was 100% different, walking onto the deck tonight than it was walking on this morning ... Even if I didn't win a medal, it's the racing, the effort, the not giving up that's important."
In the first flush of the morning disappointment, she got an E-mail on the internal computer system here from an Argentinian journalist who said her smile was better than a medal, and that she'd won his heart, a Brazilian boy gave her a hug, and her friends and teammates surrounded her with support. She thought about how she is loved at home. She decided, "Let's go get a race," and that's what she did.
Out there on the deck last night, she said, she saw her mom and dad and her sisters, and she thought, "They couldn't be more proud of me; I have to be proud of me, too."
In her whispery world, where nothing is certain, where people look at the Chinese women in search of the acne, atrophied breasts and facial hair that are the signposts of testosterone use, where what Victor Lachance calls "the ethical dimension" of drug use remains unaddressed, Joanne Malar fought the honest fight, and, this one day, lost it. That ought to be a huge comfort to her, and to her fellow Canadians.