A Natural Advantage?

Ma Junren's athletes did whatever it took to win. In the early 1990s they rewrote the women's track and field record book--and raised suspicions that their successes were fueled by illegal performance-boosting drugs. Not at all, said the flamboyant Ma. His runners won thanks to his coaching methods: a grueling high-altitude training regimen and a bizarre diet that included caterpillar fungus and a daily bowl of turtle's blood and herbs. Once he even lopped off a turtle's head, poured its blood into porcelain cups and had his track stars quaff down the liquid in front of German TV cameras.

Ma's showmanship did little to dispel Beijing's reputation as the biggest state sponsor of doping since East German officials gave steroids to athletes without telling them. Still, Chinese officials say they are determined to clean up their country's image. What's at stake: national glory at the upcoming Sydney Olympics and--more important--Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Games. Chinese officials say doping is out. Last week 27 athletes were dropped from China's Olympic delegation for allegedly taking erythropoietin, or EPO, a banned substance used to boost performance in endurance sports. But many of China's athletes will continue to follow Ma's playbook and consume appreciable amounts of traditional herbs and tonics. Although some of these concoctions are benign, some are potentially poisonous; some may help Chinese athletes perform better. And some set off alarm bells in drug tests--another reason why Beijing is so vigilant in the run-up to Sydney.

Westerners sharply distinguish medicine from nutrition; the Chinese don't. Since the first century B.C., everyone from concubines to compradors have turned to a menagerie of exotic products, such as ground tiger bone, wine-soaked snakes or bear bile, in a holistic search for well-being and longevity, or for no other reason than simply to feel better. "It's a tradition known as yao shi tong yuan," says Shi Kangcheng of Beijing's state sports agency. "It means 'food and medicine have the same roots.' This is a special problem in China." A few Chinese herbs are bona fide drugs, and so their effects are well understood. One is ma huang, the herbal form of the stimulant ephedra, which is synthesized for use in allergy medications; it opens up the bronchial tubes and increases the heart rate. In China, the herb is considered a pick-me-up. So common are medicinal herbs in China that even Mom's chicken soup is probably laced with ginseng, ginkgo nuts or gooseberries. Of course, an athlete would most likely have to drink a huge vat to risk failing a blood test.

Scientists from East and West disagree on the efficacy of the vast majority of Chinese medicines. Part of the problem is the language barrier; partly it's that Western scientists tend to distrust studies that have been done in China, where it is considered unethical to withhold treatment to any patient. This makes it next to impossible to use the control groups that accepted clinical testing methods require. Chinese studies show that powdered deer antlers can raise the body temperature and combat fatigue. Many Western scientists say the antlers have no proven effect. Nevertheless, athletes take it out of a more or less blind faith that it promotes better functioning of the blood, which, if true, would conceivably give them an edge during competition. "It's a very murky area," says Don Catlin, a University of California, Los Angeles, endocrinologist and director of a lab that does testing for the International Olympic Committee.

Some substances have been shown in Chinese studies to help animals adapt to stress. If you feed Cordyceps sinensis, a caterpillar fungus, to rats and then throw them in a pool of water, they will survive longer than rats that don't get the fungus. This endurance effect has obvious implications for athletic performance, though no human studies have been performed. "There have been thousands of studies done [on animals] in Asia," says Dan Bensky, codirector of the Seattle Institute of Oriental Medicine. "Western scientists tend to look down their noses at Asian studies, often because they haven't read them." Even if these studies are valid, it is unclear what an athlete would get out of such substances.

One of the few aspects of the Chinese medical tradition that has been widely accepted by Western medicine is acupuncture. Studies in reputable Western journals have shown that acupuncture has measurable effects in relieving pain and allergies and in treating addiction. The far more numerous Chinese studies also show that it can increase the flow of blood to certain areas of the body, which could in turn boost athletic performance. For instance, last year scientists at the Beijing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine made athletes run 5,000 meters, and afterward had some of them sit for acupuncture treatments before they had a chance to catch their breaths. The heart rates of the ones who received the treatments recovered more quickly than those in the control group. "An increase in blood flow partially explains why athletes who receive acupuncture treatments can recover from intense muscular activity more quickly," says Weidong Lu, an acupuncture researcher at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. Chinese tradition attributes the effects of acupuncture to its regulating of qi, an energy that flows through the body along established channels, or meridians. Acupuncture needles inserted in critical nodes, or points, help balance the body's positive, aggressive yang force against the negative, passive yin. Scientists, though, have no idea why acupuncture works.

For most remedies, the jury will remain out until more data is gathered and a consensus forms. Many concoctions that Chinese athletes take are most certainly fantastical. One popular potion called Dalishen Oral Liquid consists mainly of seal penis and testes. "When you start talking about penises and testicles floating around in soup and that sort of thing," says Ted Kaptchuk, an expert in Chinese medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, "at some point Chinese pharmacopeia becomes a magical pharmacopeia." Some Chinese female athletes told NEWSWEEK they've been given Viagra by their coaches. What on earth for? "Maybe it just increases their confidence," says one source inside Chinese sports circles. "Who knows?"

Then there's Ma's turtle blood. "We're not sure Ma's runners ever really took turtle blood on a regular basis," says Shi Kangcheng. "According to Western analyses, it has no special impact on athletic performance." Ma later promoted an elixir commercially, which he called Ma's Army Number One Nutritious Potion, and in the end reportedly sold the secret formula to a foreign company for lucrative sum.

That some medicines show up positive in drug tests is not lost on Chinese officials. In recent years they have published lists of dozens of substances that can produce positive test results and warned athletes to steer clear of them. But asking athletes to distinguish natural herbs from banned substances "is a difficult problem from a management point of view," admits Shi. "After all, even marijuana or six cups of coffee is enough to disqualify an athlete." Overzealous coaches pushing elixirs won't help either. As part of a culture of authority that dates to Confucius, Chinese athletes are used to doing what their coaches tell them to, no questions asked.

Perhaps the charismatic coach and his army of athletes is on the way out, a vestige of the bad old days. And perhaps China's weight lifters exemplify the new. So far they have avoided controversy. Women's team leader Ding Meiyuan even eschews traditional medicine, aside from an acupuncture massage now and then for sore muscles. Her priorities are "training hard and eating four meals a day to stay in my weight class," she told NEWSWEEK. Officials expect the weight lifters to bring home as many as half a dozen gold medals. Score one for clean living.