She won a gold at the Beijing Olympics, as well as three world championship titles in a row.
But Tong Wen – judo champion in the 78kg-plus weight category – has just been banned for two years. It might be because she likes her sausages a little too much.
Tong was banned after traces of clenbuterol were found in her bloodstream. Clenbuterol can boost muscle, like an anabolic steroid. But Tong denied knowingly breaking the rules to the Beijing Morning Post this month, arguing that she had no need to take an illegal substance. Her coach agreed, insisting that there was no point in risking a career on such a “cheap” stimulant.
Tong says she will not contest the ban but still hopes to compete at the London Olympics. Her plan is to pick up enough qualifying points to do so after she returns to competition in autumn 2011.
So what was Tong’s explanation for the positive test? Her coach told the China Youth Daily that the judoka had previously been training in Europe and discovered that she was a “little bit incompatible” with the local cuisine.
That meant that she needed feeding up on her return home, and she was soon being plied with pork. A culinary error, as it turns out, because clenbuterol is sometimes fed to pigs to help them bulk up too. All those spare rib suppers led to the stimulant turning up in Tong’s system, her supporters say.
She’s not the first to claim so. Shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China’s leading backstroke swimmer, Ouyang Kunpeng, was banned for life after testing positive for the same substance. He blamed a roast pork diet too. And two long-distance swimmers (neither of them Chinese) tried to link a positive nandrolone test to a night out on pork offal.
Any chance that Tong and the other miscreants could be right? Possibly: China banned clenbuterol at pig farms in 2007, when hundreds of people were reputedly poisoned by tainted meat.
But enforcing the ban across hundreds of thousands of hog farms is a challenge. Few believe that the practice has been stamped out completely, and some foreign Olympic teams brought their own pork with them to Beijing, just to be on the safe side.
Tong’s misfortune also casts minds back to an earlier controversy. In the mid-1990s, a maverick athletics trainer called Ma Junren managed to produce a large group of world-class female runners, all from impoverished backgrounds in Liaoning province. They then shocked the athletic community by winning all the medals at the 5,000-metres event at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, as well as gold and silver in the 10,000-metre race. A month later one of the “Ma family army” – as they were then known – then sneaked in under the 10,000-metre world record by a rather impressive 42 seconds.
Of course, that brought the doping speculation to fever pitch. Ma always denied it, claiming that his athletes prospered from high-altitude training techniques, and a steady supply of a local tonic that he mixed in caterpillar fungus and turtle blood.
Ma also ruled his team with a rod of iron. “A car will not start without being pushed,” he once retorted, “and nobody ever became world champion by being doted on.” Under his training regimen, his ladies often ran the equivalent of a marathon a day high in the mountains of Tibet. Eventually the pressure told and his team walked out in rebellion, accusing him of appropriating team winnings, and dishing out physical abuse.
Ma was dropped as a national coach 10 years ago, after six of his athletes failed blood tests shortly before the Sydney Olympics.
He now spends his time rearing Tibetan mastiffs, the canine-of-choice for the Chinese rich.
Pleasingly enough, he’s been campaigning for improved standards among the mastiff-breeding industry.
“I hope all our Tibetan mastiff lovers are honest. We don’t want to see thieves, criminals or cheaters around us,” he told AP last month.
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