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What's in the turtle's blood?

2000-09-05 20:36

Beijing - Looking for an extra burst of speed? How about a little deer's horn. Aches and strains? Perhaps a dose of sea horse in alcohol. And for stamina, a dash of turtle's blood may do the trick.

Chinese athletes are pepping themselves up for this year's Sydney Olympics with a cocktail of traditional medicines based on roots, fungi and animal parts used as tonics and elixirs in China for thousands of years.

Sports officials, desperate to clean up China's tarnished sporting image after a string of doping scandals, are anxious to know what exactly lurks within these ancient remedies.

Most of the Chinese athletes busted for doping so far have taken performance-enhancing drugs developed in the West, such as anabolic steroids and diuretics.

But there is a chance that Chinese athletes could fall foul of strict doping rules by quaffing home-grown brews based on secret recipes handed from generation to generation.

Many are sold in ready-prepared packages with scant details of ingredients or their chemical properties, like Dalishen Oral Liquid, a popular panacea based on seal's penis and testes.

"Just about every sports team is widely using traditional Chinese medicine - this has become established practice," said Zhang Shiming, director of the Sports and Injury Research Institute in the western city of Chengdu.

"Chinese medicine can help athletes to recover faster from fatigue after exercise and can also improve their performance," said Zhang, who heads a team of doctors examining the use of such medicines in sport.

Doctors say Chinese herbal medicines can range from placebos and mild restoratives to powerful pick-me-ups containing natural stimulants such as ephedrine, or mahuang in Chinese, which is banned by international sports federations.

Among the fillips favoured by athletes are the ginseng root, a medicinal plant known as huangjing or sealwort, the lingzhi mushroom and extracts of animal parts ranging from deer's tail to dog's kidney, doctors say.

The most notorious are the magic potions of turtle's blood and caterpillar fungus used by maverick coach Ma Junren to fuel his team of women distance runners, who shattered a string of world records in the early 1990s.

Zhang says the majority of these do not contain banned substances and cannot be used in the same way as Western performance-boosting drugs.

"In my experience, it's impossible to find a traditional Chinese medicine to replace a stimulant," he said.

"But if we use Chinese medical theory to adjust the balance of the entire body, it can have the same effect as a stimulant."

To be safe, the State Administration of Physical Culture and Sports has decreed that all traditional Chinese medicines must be tested for stimulants before athletes on local and national teams can use them.

Coaches and athletes using unapproved remedies face stiff penalties, sports officials say.

Some want to go further.

"We advocate the Olympic spirit of fairness and competition," said an official at the administration's Sport and Medicine Research Institute in Beijing.

"In this sense we are opposed to athletes using any medicine to improve their results, including Chinese medicine."

For China's sports tsars, the priority in Sydney is to ensure their athletes avoid the sort of drugs scandals which have plagued them since 1994 and prompted accusations that Beijing was running an East German-style doping programme.

Eleven Chinese athletes failed dope tests at the Asian Games in Hiroshima that year.

Further scandals followed at the 1998 Perth swimming world championships when a human growth hormone was found in a Chinese swimmer's luggage at Sydney airport and four more Chinese swimmers tested positive for a banned diuretic.

This year, Chinese world champion swimmer Wu Yanyan was kicked off the Olympic team after testing positive for an anabolic steroid.

The sports administration official, who asked not to be identified, said athletes were better off sticking to Chinese acupuncture and massage.

"We know there are some athletes who are taking Chinese traditional medicines in order to restore their energy," he said.

"These kinds of medicines are usually a mixture of several dozen different ingredients, but according to our research their effect is quite limited."

Zhang disagrees.

He said athletes can definitely improve their performance through careful analysis of the balance between the Yin and Yang - the feminine and masculine forces in nature รป and between the Qi, or vital energy, and the Xue, the state of the blood.

And remedies like Ma's help to redress the balance of the whole body at times of heavy physical exercise, he says.

"When an athlete exercises a lot and sweats a lot, their energy is used up," he said. "According to Chinese medicine this will damage the Yin."

"Soft-shelled turtle's blood will restore the Yin."

Western sports scientists are sceptical.

While they recognise the holistic health benefits of Chinese medicine, they say its effects on athletes are limited.

Scientists who tested Ma's turtle's blood formula found it to be a mixture of mainly water and sugar no more potent than orange juice.

Zhang said such analysis betrayed a lack of understanding of Chinese medicine which affects different people in different ways.

"In this way, Chinese medicine is very different from Western medicine," he said. "If your red blood cell count drops, a Western doctor would give you a certain medicine to increase it."

"A Chinese doctor will seek to adjust the whole body according to the individual's needs."