What do Martina Navratilova, Carl Lewis and Mike Tyson all have in common? They’re all hall-of-fame athletes who are also vegetarians (Tyson is the most recent convert, after a red-blooded career in which he carnivorously chewed the occasional ear of his opponents).
But while more athletes are ditching animal protein for a variety of alternative diets, China’s women’s volleyball team says a similar choice has been detrimental to their fortunes – well, that is according to their coach, Yu Juemin.
Last week the Chinese women’s Olympic volleyball team suffered four straight defeats at the World Grand Prix tournament in Ningbo, even losing to Thailand and Turkey, both of whom failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics (where China won bronze). It’s all something of a comedown for the Chinese team, which took five consecutive volleyball world titles in the eighties and won Olympic golds in 1984 and 2004. Over the years, volleyball has consistently been one of China’s best sports, with many players becoming stars, such as Lang Ping, (known as the ‘Iron Hammer’, see WiC27).
What’s gone so horribly wrong for the Chinese? Coach Yu is blaming a strict vegetarian diet for the players’ abysmal performance.
Yu told Chinese media that the team chose its non-meat diet reluctantly when local suppliers in Ningbo couldn’t guarantee clenbuterol-free produce. Clenbuterol is particularly prevalent in Chinese pork, because disreputable farmers use it to accelerate the meat fattening process. But the International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency forbids athletes to consume the substance, and Chinese athletes have fallen foul of the rules in the past. As we reported in WiC61, China’s judo champion Tong Wen is a high profile example, after being banned for two years after testing positive for clenbuterol in 2009.
No doubt Tong wishes that she had stayed away from the sausages. And the volleyball team took similar advice to heart – just to be on the safe side, they stopped consuming meat during the tournament.
The problem is that this seems to have meant that they ran out of puff on court. “[The players] have showed significant decline in their strength and fitness,” Yu told Beijing News, after China lost in three sets to the US on the final day of the tournament. “We dared not eat pork when we come out of our training camp for the tournament because we are afraid of clenbuterol.”
Various team members had cramps during the final games, the newspaper reported.
Back in March, Chinese Olympians were also instructed to avoid Beijing’s restaurants out of fear of possible clenbuterol doping. Other athletes have tried to minimise the risk by switching to fish and chicken. An official from China’s swimming team told Xinhua recently that all 196 athletes in his charge had foregone pork for 40 days and were surviving on fish and protein powder instead.
Netizens were sceptical of Yu’s explanation for the volleyball fiasco. “Shaolin monks never ate meat, so how did they gain their physical strength for kung fu?” one netizen wrote on weibo.
“Using Yu’s thought process, the reason that Italy lost to Spain [in the Euro 2012] is because they didn’t eat any pasta?” another mocked. “Next thing we know China’s football team is going to blame toxic pork for their lousy performance.”
Media critics needed convincing too. “Defeat is not that terrible but losing sportsmanship is. When a team loses, they should think about why instead of excuses. If they keep looking for scapegoats, the Chinese women’s volleyball team will be hopeless,” scolded Jingchu Net, a Hubei news portal.
Others thought that high-intensity competition was difficult without meat. “Athletes… definitely must consume enough animal protein from lean meat such as beef, mutton and pork, more so than ordinary people,” suggested Zhao Jisheng, an associate professor at the College of PE and Sports at Beijing Normal University.
“The fact that the Chinese women’s volleyball team lost in the tournament is certainly upsetting, but it is another slap in the face for the country’s food safety regulators,” the Guangzhou Daily lamented. “While athletes have special access to clean meat – it’s only when they are travelling that it gets problematic – the rest of us don’t, so what can we do?”
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