Before the Berlin Wall fell, East Germany dominated swimming with broad-shouldered, power-stroking women. But it was tainted glory. Suspicion was global that steroids were used to turn gifted young athletic bodies into unbeatable Olympic torpedoes.
Change was monumental as Germany reunified. No more East. No further market for controversial East German swimming coaches. But they weren't jobless for long. China, hungry for world athletic prominence, imported the shady technology.
By 1994, teenage Chinese girls were getting bigger, stronger and internationally explosive in swimming. They won 12 of 16 gold medals at the World Championships. But two weeks later at the Asian Games, seven Chinese swimmers tested positive for steroids.
East Germany in the Far East.
Since then, China's swimming machine has opted to mysteriously float. Exposing as little as possible to snarling outsiders. Nineteen swimmers had tested positive for illegal enhancement drugs during China's 1990-94 water blossoming.
Jenny Thompson, an American swimming sensation from Stanford, said it seemed, "as though the Chinese have been hiding since 1994. We can only wonder about what they might be hiding."
Assumption was, even with no drug misfires since 1994, Beijing was amassing a fleet of superfins for Atlanta, aiming to turn women's Olympic swimming into a Chinese water torture.
It's not happening.
"China's swimmers don't look as big, bad and strong as two years ago," U.S. freestyler Amy Van Dyken said two days ago. Around the Olympic pool, whispering was a favorite sport. Were the women from China off the juice? Had they feared mass detection and more worldly embarrassment?
Saturday morning's qualifying heats became a Chinese shocker. Chen Yan and Wu Yanyan, widely picked as 1-2 favorites in the 400-meter individual medley, became Georgia disasters. They didn't come close to making the finals, finishing with the 17th and 18th best times.
Shan Ying similarly sank on the Georgia Tech campus. She showed up with the year's fastest 100-meter freestyle time (54.59). But in her Atlanta qualifier, Shan labored home ninth in 56.10.
But best of all on the Chinese team is Le Jingyi, a 5-foot-11 talent nicknamed "Human Harpoon." Favored to win 100- and 200-meter freestyle gold. Le didn't go spiraling down the Atlanta drain with her buddies.
Le was as marvelous as advertised Saturday, leading the morning 100 qualifying and then taking the gold medal in the evening by outswimming 29-year-old Angel Martino of the United States.
"I don't know (if drug pressures affected the Chinese results)," said silver medalist Sandra Volker of Germany. "What I do know is that Jingyi was certainly good enough to win gold."
Ironically, American bronze medalist Martino, a Georgian from Americus, was a drug-test casualty at the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials. It cost her the Seoul Games. Martino said she failed the test due to medical complications from taking birth-control pills.
By 1992 in Barcelona, she would enjoy Olympic satisfaction, winning a gold medal and a bronze. Saturday night's bronze in Atlanta was the final and perhaps most emotional Angel antidote to her 1988 disappointment.
Martino became the oldest American women ever to win an Olympic swimming medal. But that's not the biggest deal. Her medal was bronze, but the heart of Angel was pure gold.
After the presentation, Martino posed for cameras with Le and Volker. There was a quick, low-voltage embrace. But soon Angel was hurrying away with purpose in the eyes. She scanned the gallery, searching for a friend.
Trisha Henry was there.
Henry is nine years younger than Angel, but their bond is strong and special. Martino's father ran a swimming camp. Trisha became a pupil. She and Angel have been buddies since. They would share a hug, then far more.
As Martino is heroically swim-
ming in her second Olympics, the old pal is fighting cancer. Henry is underdoing chemotherapy. Her face was pale but her grin electric.
Angel removed the medal from her neck. She presented it to Henry. They smiled together, wept together. "Swimming takes a lot of dedication and acceptance of pain," Martino said, "but when I see what Trisha is going through, being a swimmer is so little in comparison."
Some Chinese swimmers expected to medal Saturday failed to make the finals in their events.
PRELIM TIME: 56.10 seconds.
BEST TIME OF '96: 54.59.
DIFFERENCE: 1.51 seconds.
PRELIM TIME: 4:53.87.
BEST TIME OF '96: 4:40.85.
DIFFERENCE: 13.02 seconds.
PRELIM TIME: 4:54.07.
BEST TIME OF '96: 4:41.20.
DIFFERENCE: 12.87 seconds.