Do China’s Olympic Drug Cheats Know They’re Doping?

6 minute read

Four years ago, just down the street from the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, Liu Chunhong was heaving discs of metal into the air, just as she had done from the time she was a little girl. By the time I met the Chinese weightlifter, she was already a legend, a double Olympic champion and world-record holder in the 69-kg weight class. Liu stood at the apex of the Chinese state sports system, which had fashioned world champions out of hundreds of thousands of children in government-run sports academies. The goal of this massive enterprise? To bring China international glory through Olympic gold.

Chinese sports czars funneled money to pursuits like weightlifting, which are less lavishly funded in other nations. They compelled child athletes to do little else but train. “You want to know why China is so good at women’s weightlifting?” a national team coach, Xu Jingfa, told me in 2012. “It’s simple. We do everything together, and we work harder than everyone else. What time to wake up, what time to sleep, how to train, what to eat, how to think — it’s all set by our team leaders.” In fact, in a lifetime of attending weightlifting competitions across the globe, Liu had only been given a single day off for sightseeing: a glorious few hours in Paris. She hadn’t had time to climb the Eiffel Tower but she did manage to take a picture of it. It was, Liu said, one of her most-valued possessions.

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On Wednesday, Liu and two other Chinese Olympic gold medalists, Chen Xiexia and Cao Lei, were busted when doping retests came up positive on their samples from the 2008 Beijing Games. (Eight other 2008 weightlifting medalists from other nations were also snared.) If the test results are upheld — Liu’s samples showed traces of two banned substances, GHRP-2 and sibutramine — the lifters will be stripped of their medals. The Chinese weightlifting association said it was “shocked” by the doping results and told state media it would cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Doping is a scourge across weightlifting, and China is hardly the only offender. The Beijing weightlifting retests implicated medalists from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. At the Rio Games earlier this month, the first Olympic medalist to be stripped of a medal for a failed drug test was a weightlifter from Kyrgyzstan. Nor is the sport the only one to suffer from drug cheats. In the run-up to Rio and during the competition itself, everyone from a canoeist and a cyclist to a steeplechaser and a Kenyan coach posing as an athlete were nabbed by antidoping officials.

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Nevertheless, there is a difference between individuals who choose to pump themselves full of banned substances — Americans Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones, to take but two high-profile examples — and those who are part of state-sponsored sports systems that give athletes minimal control over their bodies. That was the case with East Germany, for instance, which pumped its female swimmers so full of steroids they resembled men. It was the case with Russia, whose doping offenses, particularly in track and field, were so prevalent that the International Olympic Committee banned part of the nation’s delegation from Rio.

And it was also the case with China, where the nation’s 1990s swimming success was followed by a slew of positive drug tests. (A Chinese swimmer was disqualified from Rio as well, for a doping offense.) When a new test for a banned blood booster was announced shortly before the 2000 Sydney Games, nearly the entirety of China’s victorious fleet of long-distance runners suddenly elected to stay home. Whistle-blowers are rare but Zhou Chunlan, a onetime weightlifting national champion, remembers swallowing pills during training without having any idea what they were. Eventually, she grew a beard. “Everything is for the gold medals,” she tells TIME, of the Chinese sports system, which she says filled her body with so many male hormones that she became infertile.

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While China topped the champions’ table during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, besting the U.S. for the first time with 51 gold medals, the nation’s harvest has declined since that hometown heyday. In Rio, despite sending its largest Olympic delegation ever, China claimed 26 gold medals, a disappointing third-place finish. Britain, with only a fraction of China’s population, took the No. 2 gold-medal position, behind the U.S. with 46 gold medals. The Rio letdown has catalyzed public discussion in China about whether a nation’s self-worth should be measured in Olympic gold medals. For years now, fewer Chinese parents have been willing to sacrifice their kids for a sports system that skimps on academics and can only ensure success for a tiny fraction of athletes.

If Liu and the other Chinese weightlifters are stripped of their Beijing gold medals, the question remains: Did they have any choice in any doping? Liu, who was originally selected as a judo athlete, has toiled in the state sports system since she was a little girl. (Four years ago, she was receiving less than $10,000 in annual salary for her record-breaking contributions to the state.) Eight years ago, I visited a shabby sports school in eastern Shandong province where young weightlifters spent the days in a clanging gym in lieu of primary school. After training, the kids, with their callused and chalk-stained hands, walked up to a table lined with paper cups. Each cup held a few pills, which they swallowed, one after the other, with gulps of warm water.

What were the pills for? I asked one girl. “It’s medicine to make me strong,” she told me. An alarmed coach intervened, described the pills as “natural herbs” and tried to hustle me from the room. When I asked if I could take one of the pills home with me — I wanted to see whether it really was just herbs — he refused. His excuse? They were too expensive to waste on someone not in the Chinese sports system.

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