Chinese Olympians were subjected to a state-sponsored doping regime which was modelled on eastern Europe, says a retired Chinese Olympic doctor.
Steroids and human growth hormones were officially treated as part of ''scientific training'' as China emerged as a sporting power through the 1980s and into the 1990s, she says.
Athletes often did not know what they were being injected with and medical staff who refused to participate were marginalised, she says.
''It was rampant in the 1980s,'' Xue Yinxian told Fairfax Media, in her home in Beijing's eastern suburbs. ''One had to accept it.''
The testimony of Dr Xue, whose elite roles included chief medical supervisor for the Chinese gymnastic team as it vied with the former Soviet Union for gold medals in the 1980s, will not surprise many veterans of Olympic sports.
She does not allege that all successful Chinese athletes used drugs and has refrained, at this stage, from publicising names.
But it is the first time anyone in the system has publicly contradicted Beijing's line that a slew of embarrassing doping busts, particularly among the Chinese swimming team in the 1990s, was merely the result of ambitious individual athletes and ignorant provincial coaches. Her allegation comes as most of China's 394-strong Olympic team arrives in London for the opening ceremony tonight, London time.
China is expected to put on another strong performance, although pundits predict the US may regain top place on the gold medal table after China's home-town success in 2008.
A Chinese official said yesterday that the country had largely solved its problem with deliberate use of performance-enhancing drugs and he was confident there would be no Chinese drugs scandals in London.
After the humiliation of the 1998 world swimming titles in Perth, he said China had adopted a much tougher regime, with drug testing removed from the main sports administration and placed in a separate agency.
A routine customs check of a swimmer's bag found enough human growth hormone to supply the entire women's swimming team for the duration of the meet.
''For the world of sports, in particular to the Chinese, the 1998 championships in Perth was a bad incident,'' said Zhao Jian, the deputy director-general of the China Anti-Doping Agency.
He said China had always taken a strong stance against doping and had never condoned it, but the incident prompted China to enter a ''routine, strict and legal track''.
Mr Zhao said concerns had now shifted to ''accidental'' steroid consumption, brought about by eating illegally adulterated Chinese red meat, but the general subject remains sensitive.
Internet searches for ''china'' and ''sports doping'' were blocked in Beijing yesterday, while a search for ''drugs'' coupled with the names of prominent athletes identified by Dr Xue resulted in the internet connection being temporarily severed.
Dr Xue says she fought a long but losing battle against the systematic use of drugs in elite sport since China closed the door on the Cultural Revolution and began opening to the world.
She said its top sports official told a meeting in October 1978 that performance-enhancing drugs were simply new things that should be utilised, provided they were properly understood.
''He gave the example of how a woman could use tampons to continue training while having her period,'' he said. ''And so it was with human growth hormones, which he described as a scientific training method. Whoever rejected them would face punishment or criticism.''
The Chinese women's swimming team came from obscurity to win 12 of 16 gold medals at the 1994 world titles in Rome, prompting suspicion among competitors, not least the Australian team.
The Chinese team was decimated by positive steroid busts at the Hiroshima Asian Games in 1994 and imploded for a second time in Perth in 1998.
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