STUNG by the international suspension of some of China's most celebrated sports stars over drug use, Beijing is scrambling to distance itself from the embarrassment and suspicions of performance-enhancing drug abuse.
Earlier this month, Japanese sports officials announced that 11 Chinese athletes at the Asian Games in Hiroshima tested positive for the banned substance, dehydrotestosterone. Among the athletes were seven members of the sensational Chinese swimming team, including champions Lu Bin and Yang Aihua, who were suspended for two years.
Insisting that China's stunning athletic ascendancy should not be tarnished by the controversy, Yu Zhaiqing, vice chairman of the Chinese Olympic Committee and head of the Chinese delegation to the Asian Games in Hiroshima, blamed the individual athletes and denied that taking drugs was part of the country's national sports policy.
China has actively pursued a championship profile in athletics since the country opened up about 15 years ago and sought recognition as a world power. ``This is their personal action, and responsibility should be borne by them,'' said Mr. Yu in an interview. ``This matter doesn't taint other athletes' good reputations. The athletes who took drugs will be banned in some sports programs.''
The Chinese sports executive emphasized that China accepts the scrutiny of drug use by the Olympic Council of Asia, which withdrew the Asian Games medals, and will investigate the matter and punish the athletes. But he also criticized Japanese drug officials for releasing the test results without first informing China, reflecting Beijing's continuing indignation at what is seen as humiliation of its athletes.
Initially, China defiantly rejected the results of urine sample testing, saying the accusations were prompted by Japanese jealousy of the country's domination of the Asian-style Olympics.
Altogether, China will be stripped of 22 medals won during the Games in October, lifting Japan from third to second place in the overall ranking.
Just how a large group of teenage athletes got access to sophisticated illegal substances without official sanction remains under investigation, Chinese officials say defensively. International swimming officials and Western coaches have long suspected China of systematically using drugs to boost athletes' strength and endurance.
Following recent World Swimming Championships in Rome, Western coaches openly questioned whether the spectacular Chinese success would have been possible without banned drugs.
Yu said that some traditional Chinese medicinal tonics used by the athletes could contain some banned substances. ``But many athletes lack knowledge about it and have taken some by mistake,'' he said. ``Maybe in the future, this will still happen, but we will try our best to stop it.''
Chinese officials are seeking to determine how the athletes obtained the drugs, he said. The drug-tainted athletes will be punished according to international rules in their individual sports, although some of the athletes have appealed, and their cases are being reviewed, he said.
``There is only one kind of [banned] drug taken by Chinese athletes [that was found]... so this is not running wild. That some ... used the same drug doesn't mean they are organized to take it,'' he said. ``Other kinds of [banned] drugs have not appeared in China yet. So this shows that the number of Chinese athletes using sports drugs is very few.''
The Chinese official insisted that the drug scandal would not affect the country's growing international stature because ``this is a sports problem. It should be solved through sports channels and does not affect political matters.''