Swimmer Against the Tide

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Suzu Chiba was a sure bet for stardom in Sydney. One of Japan's top swimmers, the 24-year-old veteran of two Olympics is not only a good athlete, but she's also a compelling story. A teenage sensation when she splashed onto the international scene in 1990, she retired after flopping in Atlanta in 1996. She made a fiery comeback three years later, recording the world's second-best time in the 200-m freestyle last year. At the national championships in April she came down with a bad case of the flu. She won the 200-m freestyle race anyway, topping the Olympic qualifying mark while displaying the gambatte fighting spirit so revered in Japan. A confident free spirit who likes to speak her mind, Chiba was a marketer's dream in a country that is always searching for a new pop icon. Even the name Suzu Chiba seemed destined for a marquee somewhere. "You never forget it once you hear it," she once told a journalist.

But her name won't be lit up in Sydney. In April officials of the Japan Amateur Swimming Federation decided to leave her off the team. They didn't say why. Chiba and her entourage complained that the snub was based on personality, that she was being left home because the officials simply didn't like her. The federation later said it was taking only swimmers whose results were among last year's top eight times in the world; Chiba's time in April, though impressive enough to qualify her for most other countries' teams, ranked 17th. "We are only taking potential medalists to Sydney," sniffed federation president Hironoshin Furuhashi. Nonetheless, a male swimmer whose time was 18th was given a spot. Sensing injustice, Chiba took her case to an international sports authority, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport. "I want a clear answer," she said.

Two weeks ago, she got a murky one. The international court, meeting in Tokyo, ruled against Chiba. At the same time, though, it reprimanded the federation for not making the selection process transparent and ordered it to pay the swimmer about $6,000 in legal fees.

Chiba, who took up swimming as a child to help her asthma, wanted to have fun too. In 1996 in Atlanta, she told reporters she was there to "enjoy the Olympics." That wasn't the proper kamikaze attitude. "The federation couldn't tolerate Chiba's remark in Atlanta," Taniguchi says. It didn't help matters that she failed to bring home a medal. Chiba further alienated the folks back home by signing on with an American coach, Bud McAllister, who had previously worked with Olympic sensation Janet Evans, and by moving to Ontario to train. "I might not conform to their ideal image," Chiba said recently. "That doesn't mean they shouldn't select me."

After the arbitration hearing, Chiba was stoic in defeat. In front of a packed press conference, she wept quietly and said she thought the court's decision was fair. "I wanted a hand in creating an atmosphere where future athletes could compete fairly and continue to embrace their dreams," she said. Her words sounded especially gracious after Furuhashi spoke again on Thursday. "I hope she takes and learns whatever lessons and experience she's had through the sport to become an outstanding grown-up," he said. If Chiba's rebellion does eventually embarrass Japan into reforming the way it picks its Olympians, then she may have more impact than a gold medal ever could.

With reporting by Shintaro Kano and Sachiko Sakamaki in Tokyo

The bureaucrats of the International Olympic Committee are not usually noted for their fleetness of foot. But two weeks ago the I.O.C.'s scientific committee approved a new test for the drug erythropoietin (EPO), thus defying cynics who said that such a test would not be ready for the Sydney Games.

The check for the blood-enhancing drug combines a urine test developed by French researchers and a blood test formulated in Australia. It will be given to about 300 athletes between the opening of the Olympic Village on Sept. 2 and the end of the Games on Oct. 1. The I.O.C.'s panel of experts took only two days to consider its reliability. It now awaits an Aug. 27 decision from the I.O.C.'s juridical commission. After that, the executive board is expected to give quick approval for the test in Sydney.

Anxiety about the use of EPO, which stimulates the creation of red blood cells, was heightened last month when 1,000 doses were stolen from a hospital in Alice Springs, Australia. Synthetic EPO is used to treat kidney disease and blood disorders. It can increase performance by 10% to 15% for cyclists, distance runners and other endurance athletes. With the new test in place the I.O.C. will be winning the race against drug cheats.