The 2008 Beijing Olympics were supposed to be a showcase of everything that is great about China: the culture, the technology, the sheer massiveness of what 1.3 billion people can do. Among that which was vehemently swept under the rug was Tibetan dissent, questions over gymnasts’ ages, and widespread questions over the validity of the Chinese anti-doping program after a slew of doping scandals during the previous two decades.
The last of these was perhaps the most important to the Chinese government, given the sporting context of the event and the high profile of the Michael-Phelps-fueled swimming competition. Thus it was the most egregious of mistakes when Chinese backstroker Ouyang Kunpeng failed a doping test just prior to the Olympics, and he is now facing the wrath of being made an example of zero-tolerance by the Chinese government.
The ruling Communist Party, in an effort to demonstrate that their swimming program that was previously one of the worst offenders had been cleaned up, handed the former Asian Record holder (and current 4-time Chinese Record holder) a lifetime ban that well exceeds the international norm for a first offense. FINA disagreed with the severity of the penalty, and appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS): information that only very recently became public knowledge. Through some fuzzy negotiations, China agreed to reduce Ouyang’s ban to only two years.
Earlier this year, in May, Ouyang’s two-year period expired, yet China is still not allowing him back into competition at any level. According to the AP, Chinese swimming officials have said that he will never again compete in any government-sanctioned swimming events in China. Chinese swim official Yuan Haoran explained this decision by saying “we won’t let him represent China in any competition. He won’t enter the Chinese national team again because of the very bad precedent he set.”
There are two issues at play here. The first, and most obvious, is the length of the ban. A lifetime exclusion for the first offense is obviously among the harshest in the world, but it is not totally without precedent in other nations. The British Olympic Association, for example, bans athletes from ever again representing the nation in the Olympics for a single offense. But still: a lifetime ban from every level of the sport for a first transgression seems harsh.
Then again, fans, coaches, and the athletes themselves have been begging for someone to take a strong stand on doping, especially within the secretive and secluded Chinese Federation. Among the bigger stories of this year’s Short Course World Championships in Dubai was the impressive performances by some of the previously unknown Chinese female swimmers, and how they rose to stardom so quickly and secretively. This was enhanced by the fact that several Chinese athletes, including 200 fly World Record holder Liu Zige, had skipped many of the other high profile competitions that might have resulted in drug tests, and caused many of the leading swimming
So how can we complain when those same Chinese put the hammer down on an athlete that is caught using performance enhancers? There is a huge portion of the American sporting community, if not a majority, who would probably prefer that the USA enacted stricter regulations on even first-time offenders (except in extreme circumstances like Ryan Napoleon’s, where the pharmacist gave him the wrong prescription). There is also a large portion who likely believe in giving second chances (though rarely third) to athletes willing to clean up their acts and be subjected to stricter testing. I happen to fall into the category of the former, but this is entirely an object of opinion.
What I am more concerned about is the second issue at play. The Chinese Federation seems to have gone back on the wishes of FINA that they reduce Ouyang’s ban, though the details of the back-room dealing that led to this reduction are still hazy. It seems that FINA likely dropped its appeal to the CAS, which is effectively the Supreme Court of every major sporting organization in the world, on the acknowledgment that the Chinese government would reduce the suspension. Now, with China slated to host the World Long Course Championships (swimming’s biggest inter-Olympic competition) in Shanghai next year, an awkward tension has developed between the two organizations.
Soccer’s governing body, the similarly named FIFA, has taken a much more hard-line stance on the government’s interference with sporting organizations, and FINA might need to ramp up its efforts to do the same. This seems to be a decision coming from higher levels of the Chinese government than the Chinese Swimming Federation, and warrants further investigation by FINA. It will be interesting to see what the fallout of this is, and whether or not Ouyang will be able to compete ever again for China. At this point, his only options seem to be fighting the battle or seeking a change in nationality, and at 28 years old, the window might close on his return to competition before either choice pushes through red-tape. It will be interesting to see what, if any, reaction FINA has to the situation.
The World Anti-Doping Agency has said that there is no further action they can take to help Ouyang. Strangely enough, China has ceased use of the regulation that was used to suspend him, and will introduce new measures in 2011 that fall in line with those recommended and imposed by WADA. For now, the only agency able to appeal on his behalf is the Jiaxing Provincial Sports Bureau, which is Ouyang’s home province.