China’s Anti-Doping Agency said Saturday that 16-year-old Li Zhesi tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug EPO in March.
EPO, or erythropoietin, is a hormone that boosts the body’s production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen – and more oxygen helps athletes perform better.
Shang Xiutang, Deputy Director of the State Sport General Administration (Swimming Division), said that an investigation was underway, and that if test results were confirmed, Li would be unable to represent China in the upcoming London Olympic Games in July.
As a member of the 4x100m medley relay event, Li and her teammates won gold for China at the 2009 Swimming World Championships in Rome. She also won the 50-meter freestyle event at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou.
This is not the first time Chinese swimmers have faced doping charges. Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Chinese backstroke champion Ouyang Kunpeng tested positive for clenbuterol and was given a lifetime ban. Mr. Ouyang denied using drugs, and claimed that the culprit was the meat he had eaten at an outside restaurant.
Food safety has become a thorny issue for Chinese sports authority. In recent years, most of the doping cases have involved clenbuterol, a substance sometimes used by famers to improve lean yield of livestock. To prevent athletes from unwittingly eating meat contaminated with clenbuterol, the Dietary Department of the National Sports Training Authority has implemented a series of policies, including forbidding athletes to eat out.
By carefully selecting suppliers, the National Sports Training Authority and provincial sports authorities want to ensure that their athletes have “clean” food to eat.
Some observers have suggested that in Li Zhesi’s case, her coaches may be responsible for her alleged drug usage. Many elite Chinese athletes are trained in an isolated setting, away from their families. Under such circumstances, coaches’ directives are usually followed without questioning, especially for young athletes like Li Zhesi.
As the investigation is still underway, one can hope that the positive test results are somehow a mistake, and that Li Zhesi, who has worked so hard since age 6, can be cleared of doping charges and represent her country in the London Olympic Games.