ATLANTA — American swimmer Jenny Thompson says she likes the high-canopied ceiling at the Olympic Aquatic Center at Georgia Tech University. "It just looks good," she says, explaining that the size of the starting blocks, the depth of the pool, and lane markers can all influence performance.
The problem for ceiling-admirers like Thompson is that something much darker hangs over the open-air Tech pool in this week's swimming competition, namely a cloud of suspicion. Swimming is currently caught in a crisis of trust, brought on, but not limited to the Chinese women.
They were suspected of taking banned drugs at the '92 Barcelona Olympics, when their emergence reminded people of how East German women set off alarm bells with their rise to power in 1976. No positive drug tests occurred in '92, but at the 1994 Asian Games, seven Chinese failed drug tests and received bans of varying lengths. There have been waves ever since.
Last summer, China was banned from the Pan Pacific Championships, a major international meet held in Atlanta. Australia suggested that the International Olympic Committee ban China from the Centennial Games, but the IOC rejected the idea.
Then, shortly before the Olympics began, the World Swimming Coaches' Association set up an organization intent on pressuring swimming's world governing body, FINA, to take a tougher stand on the drug issue. Of concern are substances medically viewed as aids to building strength and stamina during training. FINA, the acronymn used by the Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur, responded last week by announcing that any country guilty of four doping offenses within a 12-month period would be handed a two-year suspension. Had these rules been in effect earlier, China would not have swimmers in Atlanta.
American Janet Evans, an Opening Ceremony torchbearer who is competing in her third Olympics, says she favors stiff measures. She says that when she won three gold medals at age 17 in 1988, she was too naive to be intimidated by East Germans suspected of using so-called performance-enhancing drugs. Revelations have since confirmed these suspicions.
"In '88 I could see how the other American girls looked at the East Germans and said, 'I can't beat them,' " Evans recalls. "I was too young and figured I could win anyway. Then the [Berlin] wall fell and I said there would not be any organized drug use, but now you still have allegations against other countries."
The Chinese arrived in Atlanta "clean," based on tests conducted only a week before their Olympic arrival. Clearly, however, many people view such reports warily and only hope that Olympic drug testers, with their state-of-the-art sophistication, can stay a step ahead of those who might attempt to avoid detection.
Despite these past problems, the Chinese women in Atlanta are showing early signs of success with Le Jingyi's winning the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle on Saturday.
When drug suspicions are introduced to any sport, they don't lift easily. Rowdy Gaines, a gold medalist at the 1984 Games, says, "The first thing people ask when someone swims fast is, 'Is that person on drugs?' "
Drug testing is far from new in swimming. American Rick DeMont was stripped of his gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics for taking a banned medication. The incident was a fiasco and still may not have achieved closure. Less than two months before the Atlanta Olympics, he brought suit against US Olympic officials for what he views as their negligence.
Samantha Riley is a star of Australia's Olympic team and noted role model. Yet she took a prescription medication last November that neither she nor her coach realized was banned. She tested positive, but FINA allowed her to continue competing. A more troubling case is that of American Jessica Foschi, who was suspended for two years by FINA for testing positive for steroid use last summer. She proclaimed her innocence, suggesting that someone set her up. Much controversy has surrounded this disturbing episode raises questions about a double standard. Surprise out-of-competition testing is viewed as the surest means of catching cheaters. The US Olympic Committee recently adopted such a program.