China's decision to ban one of its top swimmers for life after he failed a drug test is proof Beijing is serious about sending a clean team to the Olympics, a top anti-doping official said Monday.
Last week's announcement that swimmer Ouyang Kunpeng, along with his coach Feng Shangbao, was banned for life from the sport after he tested positive for anabolic steroids was an embarrassment for the host country just six weeks before the Beijing Olympics.
During an interview with the Associated Press, Zhao Jian, deputy director general of the China Anti-Doping Agency, said the case illustrates that China is "resolutely determined to send clean athletes to the Beijing Olympic Games."
"It shows China has a very systematic and strict anti-doping program, which includes ... all of the best athletes. The system is running effectively," he said.
But Zhao acknowledged that the embarrassing discovery "shows that anti-doping work here in China still has a long way to go. We are faced with many challenges."
Ouyang, a backstroke specialist who won three silver medals during the 2006 Asian Games, tested positive for anabolic steroids during a routine out-of-competition test in early May, Zhao said. The test was conducted at the anti-doping agency's new US$10 million drug laboratory, built just for the games.
The unusually harsh punishment - first-time offenses generally get a two-year suspension - reflects China' s determination to enforce a zero-tolerance policy regarding drugs after its scandal-ridden history of athletes and doping.
It also sends a very strong message to elite athletes that they need to set positive examples as role models, said Zhao.
"For young teenagers or young athletes, these elite athletes have a great influence on them, both positive and negative. Of course, we hope that kind of influence should be positive because they are role models," he said.
China has taken on more stringent anti-drug measures after a series of doping scandals during the 1990s.
China is one of the world's largest producers and suppliers of steroids and human growth hormone, which enhance muscle growth. Earlier this month, authorities announced that 150 illegal manufacturers and another 300 Web sites involved in drug distribution had been shut down.
HGH is of particular concern because current tests can detect traces only within a 24-48 hour window after usage - making it difficult to track.
"From a technical perspective, I'm a 100 percent confident that once there is this kind of substance in the urine sample, it will be tested," Zhao said. However, he acknowledged that the limited testing window does impact results.
Zhao said he believes Chinese athletes are under extra pressure to perform before a home crowd amid raised expectations that China might overtake the U.S. in the gold medal haul.
"Because Chinese athletes are competing in front of loved ones, they want to show their best performance with good rankings. This kind of pressure is motivation for athletes to do well, but some of them might take other risks and that's what we worry about," he said.
China's new state-of-the-art anti-doping laboratory will carry out an estimated 4,500 doping tests during the Olympics, 25 percent more than in Athens.
"I am confident the facilities are the best in the world," he said. "I believe this is not good news for the cheaters."
Zhao said a staff of 150 will be working under international supervision during the games to ensure the results are "fair and transparent."
"For me, a successful Olympics means that athletes say this is a fair Olympic Games," he said. "I don't agree that a successful games means there are no positive cases. If somebody is using the drugs and we don't catch them, that is not successful."