THERE is no evidence that Chinese swimming sensation Ye Shiwen is doping. So why is everyone insinuating she’s a cheat?
In the absence of hard evidence — reliable sources and a failed drug test — sportswriters don’t go around accusing athletes of cheating. Except, it seems, when that athlete is a 16-year-old Chinese swimmer who’s going faster than anyone has gone before.
On Tuesday, National Post sports columnist Bruce Arthur said Ye’s achievements were “looming over this swim meet, and over these Olympics, like a shadow from the past”. That shadow was conjured by John Leonard, executive director of the US Swimming Coaches Association. In a story published on Monday, Leonard told Britain’s Guardian that Ye’s world record-breaking performance in Saturday’s 400m individual medley (IM) was “disturbing” and “suspicious.” The Chinese swimmer’s second Olympic victory, in Tuesday’s 200m IM, won’t do anything to stop that sort of talk.
What set off Ye’s critics was her amazing finish on Saturday. In the final 50m of the IM’s freestyle leg, she swam faster than Ryan Lochte did in that portion of his gold-medal-winning 400m IM. In the New York Times, Jere Longman wrote that “no swimmers accused Ye … of using illicit substances to fuel her kick”. But Longman also quoted American star Natalie Coughlin calling the performance “interesting”, Australia’s Stephanie Rice terming it “insane,” and the US’ Caitlin Leverenz saying, “The Chinese have had a history in the past of doping, so I don’t think people are crazy to point fingers, but I don’t think that’s my job to do right now.”
The quotes from these coaches and athletes — and the articles and television broadcasts that dutifully collect them — all play the game of pretending to be fair and even-handed. Ye’s feat is interesting, not illegitimate. It’s not crazy if other people want to point fingers, but that’s not what I’m doing.
I suspect there are three reasons that journalists and TV commentators have decided it’s OK to accuse Ye of doping. The first is the “gotcha” element of her better-than-Lochte split time — how is it possible that a clean female swimmer could go faster than the best man in the world? But this selective editing of Ye’s 400m IM leaves out the fact that she was in fifth place after the race’s first leg, the butterfly. (She swam that leg seven seconds slower than Lochte did, for what it’s worth.) She also didn’t hold the lead in the 400m IM at any split until the 350m mark. One of the reasons Ye was so strong at the end, it seems, was that she was weak in the beginning.
But the biggest reason these doping accusations are so prevalent is that Ye is from China, a country with a history of doping in swimming; a highly regimented, state-run sports system; and a recent, paranoia-inducing dominance of the medal table. Toronto’s Globe and Mail pointed out that “Chinese athletes — and their respected Australian coaches — are insisting that this isn’t the same China that was a disgrace in the 1990s, when ripped, drug-fuelled swimmers emerged from nowhere to beat the world”. The obvious subtext here: Why should we believe them?
To that, I would say: Why shouldn’t we? In 1987, a 15-year-old who weighed 95 pounds broke the 800m freestyle world record by more than two seconds. Janet Evans’ triumph was rightly celebrated as the amazing achievement of a once-in-a-generation athlete.
We should open our minds to the possibility that a young woman from China could be a similar talent. We don’t know if training, the amazing improvements that teenagers (like the young Michael Phelps) sometimes make seemingly overnight, or something else altogether is responsible for Ye’s amazing success. But as Lord Moynihan, the chairman of the UK Olympic Committee, pointed out in her defence, Ye has been drug-tested repeatedly and has passed every single time.