Chinese coaches, commentators and sports fans have rallied to support 16-year-old swimmer Ye Shiwen, whose world record-breaking swim in the 400m individual medley at the London Olympics has raised questions about doping. Ye beat her own personal best by five seconds and swam the final 50m quicker than Ryan Lochte, the American winner of the men’s event, prompting John Leonard, an American who is executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, to call her gold medal performance “suspicious” in an interview with the Guardian. The allegation has set off a furious response in China, where the Olympics are closely followed. China took the most gold medals at the Beijing Games in 2008, a point of national pride and a sign of the country’s resurgent national strength.
The head of China’s Olympic swimming team rejected any suggestion that Ye may have used performance-enhancing drugs. “Ye Shiwen winning the gold was something we expected, and not worthy of surprise. Her level of training is very high,” Xu Qi told the state-run Xinhua News Service. “We are very excited, but it wasn’t unexpected.” Xu said that it was incorrect to compare Ye’s closing sprint with Lochte’s because she was swimming in a closely fought race and had to close a gap on American teenager Elizabeth Beisel, while Lochte had a more comfortable margin on the final leg. And he noted that despite the focus on Ye’s fast finish, her world record time was 4 minutes, 28.43 seconds, more than 20 seconds slower than Lochte’s winning time of 4 minutes, 5.18 seconds.
Shaving five seconds off a personal best time in a race under five minutes is rarely seen at elite levels, and it’s certain to attract scrutiny. At the same time, Ye has shown steady improvement, winning the 400 IM at the 2010 short course World Championships and winning the 200 IM at last year’s Aquatic World Championships. At 16, she is at an age when swimming stars such as Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps and Janet Evans began to stand out in international competitions; Evans set three world records when she was 16. “In Spitz’s time, he was called a once-in-century talent, then quickly Phelps came along and won eight golds at the Beijing Olympics, leaving people amazed,” said Xu Qi. “Now the U.S. has Lochte, Missy Franklin and other talents. France and South Africa often have talents emerge. We recognize and admit that these talented competitors exist, so why is it that China, with all its population, can’t have a swimming talent?”
Suspicions against Chinese swimming date back to the 1990s, when the country’s program experienced a series of doping scandals. The women’s team exploded onto the international scene in the early 1990s, winning four golds and five silvers at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and then dominated the 1994 world championships, prompting allegations of doping. In 1998 a Chinese swimmer, Yuan Yuan, was caught with a human growth hormone in her baggage while en route to the World Championships in Perth, Australia, and four other swimmers were suspended for positive tests. In a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, a retired Chinese Olympic doctor said that the doping program in the 1980s and 90s was state-sponsored and not merely a series of mistakes by unscrupulous individuals.
Chinese officials have said that era is in the past, and doping is strictly forbidden. The team even closely monitors food sources to ensure banned substances such as clenbuterol, a muscle builder that is used illegally by Chinese farmers to speed the growth of pigs and cattle, doesn’t end up on athletes’ dinner plates. In 2008, the Chinese swimmers had a strong showing at Beijing’s Water Cube, prompting a sense that the swimming program had recovered from the debacle of the ’90s.
Thus far there has been no evidence that Ye used any performance enhancing substance. But the suggestion clearly upset many Chinese, who saw it as part of a pattern of foreign prejudice that Chinese athletes face. The allegation became one of the hottest subjects online Tuesday, with more than 1 million comments posted on Sina Webio, the popular microblog service. “To have suspicions is ok, and there are normal channels for investigation, but why hasn’t there been any doubts proclaimed that are based on evidence? This is too wretched,” Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, a tabloid that is part of Communist Party-run People’s Daily group, wrote on Sina Weibo. While most Chinese commenters supported Ye, a few raised questions of their own. “Reasonable doubt is normal,” wrote a commenter on a message board hosted by Hong Kong-based Phoenix Media. “Only in an abnormal society do people want to shut every body up in the name of nationalism if they are facing doubts.” —with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang/Beijing