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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS / The Countdown: 12 Days To The

SPLASH or CRASH? : Despite More Reasonable Times at Olympic Trials, No One Knows What to Expect of Chinese Swim Team


The times don't tell the entire truth.

It might appear that the Chinese women have fluttered back to earth, resuming athletic competition with mere mortals based on the results of the Olympic swimming trials at Tianjin in April, but those times are not the true forecaster of success in Atlanta.

Virtually no one is taking the Chinese lightly, because it would be naive to do so, even off the April results. The memory of the Chinese women winning 12 of 16 events at the 1994 World Championships, setting five world records along the way, is indelible.

It's open to debate how strong the Chinese will be in the aftermath of the drug scandal of 1994, in which seven swimmers tested positive for banned substances at the Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan. The old faces have been replaced, in part, by a new crop of virtually unknown teenagers.

Richard Quick, coach of the U.S. Olympic women's team, chuckled when he was asked what kind of Chinese team will show up in Atlanta.

"A good one will--I can tell you that," he said. "I don't know who they are anyway. My philosophy as a coach is to get yourself ready to do the best you can, and just see what happens.

"It's hard [to tell]. If you were in Rome at the World Championships, you understand they're going to have a great team and you shouldn't be concerned about who is there and who is not there and what their times are and history, because it will make no difference. They will have a great team."

America's greatest distance swimmer, Janet Evans, has been around too long to putmuch credence in the average times of April.

"I expect them to make a statement in July, not April," she said. "That's what I think. There are so many rumors about the Chinese. I don't recognize the names. They've all changed."

Some of the old guard struggled in Tianjin. World-record holder Le Jingyi, who could win three or four gold medals in Atlanta, was handed an unusual loss in the 100-meter freestyle, finishing second behind 18-year-old Shan Ying.

World Championships gold-medalist Liu Limin won the 100 butterfly, but was second in the 200 butterfly, the event she won in Rome.

Former world champion Lin Li had an especially difficult meet. Although the 26-year-old said she had resumed training for only 2 1/2 months, she was third in the 400 individual medley and second in the 200 IM. Lin had won both events at the 1991 World Championships in Perth, Australia, and took the 200 IM gold medal in Barcelona and the silver in the 400 IM.

At the trials, she qualified for the finals in the 400 IM--even though she finished ninth in the preliminaries--because a teammate surrendered her spot. Late last month, Lin, the world-record holder in the 200 IM, was quoted by the Xinhua news agency as saying she would retire after the Olympics.

Two teenagers worth following in Atlanta are Wu Yanyan and Chen Yan.

Wu, 18, won the 200 IM in 2 minutes 12.87 seconds. Wu's time was better than the winning time at the U.S. Olympic trials (Allison Wagner's 2:13.71), but the real indication of her rapid progress is especially impressive because Wu went only 2:16.35 at a meet in China in April 1995.

Then there is Chen, a 15-year-old, who seemed to jump off the blocks out of nowhere on the world scene when she won four gold medals at the trials--the 200 freestyle, the 400 freestyle, the 800 freestyle and the 400 IM. She took third in the 200 IM behind Wu and Lin. Chen defeated vaunted teammate Le Jingyi in the 200 freestyle in 2:00.24, a time that would have put her second behind American Cristina Teuscher's 1:59.50 at the U.S. trials.

Afterward, Chen's coaches raved about her potential, pointing to her wide arm span and proclaiming the 5-foot-10 youngster is "physically better than Janet Evans." Of course, that statement has been made more than a few times.

The real Evans was around well before the Chinese became a force on the world scene.

"I've seen everything--the end of the East German domination and the Chinese starting to rise," said Evans, who is preparing for her third Olympics.

"I feel we're in the same position we were in 1988. It's kind of like a full circle. The difference is that now we're talking about the Chinese instead of the East Germans. Because of the technology and the ability to mask illegal drugs, I just don't see any end to this.

"It's frustrating. After 1989, we thought never again will we have to deal with a country like this again."

Despite proclamations of stiffer penalties and heightened drug testing, Evans isn't buying that their act has been cleaned up.

"The East Germans masked it for 12 years," she said.

Said American sprinter Jenny Thompson: "The residual effects last for a long time. Even if they are clean, I think they're still getting benefits from last year or whatever.

"It does seem as though the steroid users are one step ahead of the steroid catchers. I'm just as much in the dark as anyone [as to how good they will be]. I have no idea. They've sort of been in hiding, it seems."

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