Beijing: China's national marathon team reared their own chickens till recently out of concern over the possibility of illegal food additives impacting their drug tests as well as food safety.
Wang Bin, the team's coach, confirmed that the team had raised chickens in the city of Lijiang in southwest China's Yunnan province, but only for a short period of time.
Wang said the team had bought some home-raised chickens, which were safer and more nutritious than those found at markets that could have been fed illegal additives.
They left the uneaten chickens alive. There happened to be chicken cages in the restaurant, so we kept them and cooked them for athletes every couple of days," he told state run Xinhua news agency.
The team also bought live fish and yak meat from areas with better ecology, and brought them back to Lijiang to fuel athletes' workouts.
Athletes who eat food containing illegal additives, such as clenbuterol, may fail drug tests, Wang said. However, their actions have stirred public controversy over the food safety issue in China.
Netizens commented that raising chicken alone cannot solve the food safety problem, as so many chains have been involved in daily meals.
Zhang Wenyin, a spokesman with the Lijiang city government, denied suspicions that food in the city is not safe, adding that the national sports team chose the location because of the city's superior environmental conditions.
Jiang Zhixue, an official with the General Administration of Sport of China, said the administration has special dietary requirements for professional athletes.
"Athletes have special demands for food, and ordinary consumers do not need to overreact," he said.
However, Jiang said sports teams were never asked to raise their own poultry or livestock.
"Athletes should be responsible for what they eat, and it is understandable for the team to raise chickens from the angle of anti-doping. An athlete will be punished if he fails to pass a drug test, no matter where the drug was extracted," Jiang said.
The case comes on the heels of a series of food safety scandals that have shaken China in the past few years.
Last month, shrimp in the city of Tianjin were injected with gelatin-like chemicals to increase their weight, prompting a thorough probe into the local seafood market.
Last year, numerous officials were sacked or jailed after pigs were fed with clenbuterol, a banned chemical that makes pork leaner but can be harmful to humans.
The most notorious case occurred in 2008, when milk powder was found to be tainted with melamine, an industrial compound used to create plastic and resin.
The tainted formula led to the deaths of six infants and sickened 300,000 children across the country.