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Deep divisions over Ye Shiwen’s stunning performance

by Aidan Elder | July 31, 2012

HEADLINE SPLASH: Events at the Aquatic Centre have provided much of the drama so far the Olympics (pic: Inpho)

By Aidan Elder | Chief Sports Writer

Drugs in sport. That’s bad. And racism. No-one likes that either.
Asking an unpalatable question that carries undertones of both? That’s going too far.

The stunning performance of Ye Shiwen in the final of the women’s 400m Individual Medley has provided London 2012 with its first major controversy. A controversy that comes with delicious sprinklings of Cold War suspicion, modern geopolitics and long-established stereotypes. It’s a Tom Clancy novel in the making.

The raw data is incredible – in every sense of the word. Ye swam each of the first six lengths of her final roughly 3-4 seconds slower than the winner of the men’s version, American Ryan Lochte. Nothing unusual there.

It’s the last 100 metres that has been the subject of great debate. In the penultimate length of the pool, the 3-4 second difference had narrowed to 0.2 seconds. If that wasn’t jaw-dropping enough, in the very last 50 metres of a world record breaking time, Ye not only closed the gap, but went quicker than the American by 0.17 seconds.

STATS AMAZING: The splits from Ye’s swim (pic: Graphic News)

It has since been pointed out that the 16-year-old has previously shown evidence of deep stamina reserves to finish strongly at other events. That’s a perfectly acceptable point to make, but does that natural gift truly explain what the world witnessed on Sunday? Could a young girl of 1.72m and 64kg really outpace a man of 1.88m and 89 kg of almost all muscle after 350 metres of high intensity swimming?

Firstly, to ask the question not is xenophobic. Or at least it doesn’t have to be xenophobic. Questions are entitled to be asked. China is a country with all almost maniacal desire to prove that their stock is superior to the rest of the world in order to validate the suspect methods of the ruling class.

A Chinese athlete winning any event is perfectly acceptable, but when it’s done in a manner that seems to bend the rules of what is physically possible with the human body, suspicion is understandable. We’ve seen enough Ben Johnsons and cyclists rocketing up the steepest climbs of the Pyrenees with minimal hassle not to become slightly cynical.

An Ongoing Team?

China has previous when it comes to doping. Of course almost every country has steroid-enhanced skeletons in the closet, but China has proved to be different. By and large, in other countries (I’m aware there are notable exceptions) doping is the result of an individual making the decision to cheat in order to improve their chances of success. In China however, the use of performance-enhancing drugs was systematic for a prolonged period of time

Dr Chen Zhanghao was lead doctor for the Chinese contingent at the Olympics of 1984, 1988 and 1992. He denies any wrong-doing, but admits testing growth hormones and other performance enhancing technologies on elite athletes. When he was accused being the mastermind of Chinese doping programme, his defence was taken straight of the ‘well, he started it’ book of denials. “The United States, the Soviet Union and France were all using them, so we did as well,” said Dr Chen. “So how can you condemn China but not the USA or Soviet Union?”

On The Record

Ill-thought-out parallels were drawn between Ye and Ruta Meiltyte’s victory in the 100m breaststroke on Monday night. The 15-year-old from Lithuania faced none of the accusations levelled at Ye and the theory was put forward that this was largely down to the fact she didn’t represent a foe of the west and – doing her training in Plymouth – was an adopted winner for the host nation. The rather dull truth is she didn’t threaten the world record, let alone obliterate it by over a second. That makes it slightly less unbelievable.

Even if Ye tests negative for every possible performance-enhancer between now and the time she retires, the mumbles will be less that ‘she didn’t take anything’ and more ‘she just didn’t get caught thanks to Chinese technology’. That’s a shame, especially if she must go through a long and successful career with the cloud of doubt constantly hanging over her.

Maybe she truly is an athlete we’ve never seen the like of previously. But we shouldn’t be made to feel bad for asking a difficult question. After all, we aren’t living under an oppressive regime.

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