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China's anti-doping show hits the road ahead of Olympics

BEIJING (AFP) - An anti-doping exhibition in China has hit the road in a bid to root out a problem that could jeopardize the success of the 2008 Olympic Games in the country.

Chinese and international sports officials say that China has made great strides in recent years in improving its own checkered record on doping but has yet to tackle the problem at its source.

"Our goal is to take this exhibition around the country this year so that everyone will have a chance to see and understand what the problem is," said Lin Wenyi, the head of the Beijing Olympic organising committee's science and technology panel, who opened the roadshow here last week.

The exhibition, titled "Olympics -- 40 years of anti-doping" showcases vials of performance-enhancing drugs and poster-size photos and wallcharts showing the history of doping in sport, including one shot of a hypodermic syringe thrust into an athlete's arm.

But there are no specific displays concerning China's own history of battling performance-enhancing drugs.

China was a latecomer to the anti-drug bandwagon and its reputation was battered by several major drug busts in the 1990s. More than 40 positive tests since 1990 made China the league leader in the field.

But China's embarrassed sports leaders have maintained a strong crackdown in recent years.

In 2004 China enacted laws specifically cracking down on coaches who administer the drugs, providing for life bans for offenders.

"They took very restrictive measures," said International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge after the 2004 Olympics. "There are no longer any compromises."

However, in the run up to the 2008 Games, cynics suggest that Chinese coaches will try to ensure that China tops the medal table by fair means or foul after coming second to the United States in 2004 in Athens.

Following the 2005 drug bust of Sun Yingjie, China's top female distance runner and an Olympic bronze medallist over 10,000m, one sports insider said it was routine for coaches to administer "medicine".

"Athletes are given this medicine in a regular way like a medical supplement is given at a hospital," the coach told state media on condition of anonymity. "The effect of the 'medicine' on the results are obvious."

Evidence that doping remains a major problem at provincial level and below emerged last August at a sports school in the northeastern province of Liaoning.

Authorities found about 450 bottles of performance enhancing drugs, some being used by athletes as young as 15 years of age.

In a comprehensive survey of young athletes in 2005 by the Beijing University of Sports Culture, five percent of student athletes said they had taken drugs and more than 11 percent said they were considering doing so.

"The problem is not what is happening at the top. It is out in the country which is more difficult to control," said Dick Pound, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, during a recent visit to China.

Driven by the short-cut to glory and massive financial rewards in China, there will always be coaches and athletes ready to use drugs, according to Yang Shumin, the former head of China's Olympic doping control centre and an expert on anabolic steroids.

"China has a no-tolerance doping policy," he said. "But in any country there are athletes who want to take drugs. There is not much that can be done about it except through education and very harsh sanctions."