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China Paranoia: Ye Shiwen, Doping, And The Rush To Be Respectfully Offensive

China continues to lead the London Olympics gold medal count, and the first week was headlined by Ye Shiwen's mindblowing performance in the pool. But for Ye and her country, it hasn't come without controversy.

Ye Shiwen is a 16-year-old Chinese swimming prodigy who won two gold medals in London this week, obliterating her competition and setting a world record in the 400 meter individual medley, and people think she cheated. John Leonard, the executive director of U.S. Swimming, labeled Ye's win "disturbing."

In addition to setting a world record, her final 50 meters in the 400 medley were faster than Ryan Lochte, who won the gold for the men. As the U.S. director told The Guardian afterward, "The final 100m was impossible. Flat out. To swim three other splits at the rate that she did, which was quite ordinary for elite competition, and then unleash a historic anomaly, it is just not right."

"We want to be very careful about calling it doping," he added. "The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, 'unbelievable', history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved."

People who have lived through the sport for decades are suspicious, and nobody's being shy about having this conversation in public. Bob Costas addressed the Ye suspicions on NBC Tuesday night, and at first it was nice to see the topic broached so openly, But then as Costas went on and on--maybe we shouldn't be suspicious, but maybe we should--the whole thing became vaguely insulting to everyone, a pedantic attempt to raise suspicion without anyone getting their hands dirty.

At least the Taiwanese cartoons made this game fun.

Maybe she WAS doping; we don't know, but she's passed all the tests, and unless we find out she failed one, that's all that you can really say. Where this conversation gets obnoxious is when commentators and journalists try to justify the discussion as anything more than blatant speculation.

A perfect example of the problem came with this article from the U.K. Tuesday: Forging of the Mandarin Mermaid: How Chinese children are taken away from their home and brutalised into future Olympians. We begin like so:

Watching the new ‘Mandarin Mermaid’ glide to another suspiciously easy victory yesterday - the prelude to what will doubtless be her second gold medal of these Games - my thoughts returned to the disturbing interview I conducted with another swimming sensation many years ago.

Just like China’s Ye Shiwen, East German Petra Schneider had astonished the world in winning the 400 metres medley - this time at the 1980 Moscow Olympics...

Thirty-two years ago, there was a swimmer who won Gold in the same event as Ye. Okay. Eighteen years later, that swimmer admitted to doping. Okay. The question is...

Was the equally invincible Ye Shiwen similarly programmed? As with everyone who marvelled at the way she eased through the water yesterday, like a killer whale in her white cap and black costume, I hope — oh, how I hope — she was not.

Oh, how he hopes.

Yet recalling the photographs Schneider had showed me of herself at a similar age, one well understands the fears voiced by America’s top swimming coach.

Ye Shiwen possesses that same masculine, almost wall-like figure; the same impossibly wide shoulders and huge, rounded thighs; the same armchair-leg calves. Rebecca Adlington is a strong woman, to be sure, but she still looks feminine; Ye, though barely out of adolescence, appears androgynous.

She might be cheating because she looks like an athlete. Or, wait.

According to her mother, Qing Dingyi, as quoted by the Chinese state media, little Ye ‘expressed a wish to become a swimmer at the tender age of seven’.

In truth, she was picked out because she had an unusually masculine physique with extremely large hands and long limbs: attributes at first thought best suited to a career in track and field.

So maybe that "androgynous" frame came naturally. (Or she was doping at 7 years old?).

We are told, again by state-controlled newspapers, that she is never happier than when painting her mother’s toenails, reading detective stories, and chatting to friends on her pink mobile. Perhaps so, but for the past six years she has lived in a Spartan dorm with five other swimming hopefuls.

Relocating to a national training facility to pursue Olympic dreams--isn't that what Gabby Douglas did when she moved to Des Moines, Iowa? Perhaps so.

At seven she could already perform 20 chin-ups - an exercise beyond the capability of most fit adults.

And perfectly normal for athletic children, let alone future Olympians.

She swims every day for several hours - only getting a break when the pool ‘needs cleaning’ according to one of her coaches, Wei Wei.

Several hours of daily training, like every other Olympic athlete in any sport.

Her only consolation is that her diet will be far more nourishing than that of an ordinary Chinese teenager. Food and legal supplements apart, though, the question gnaws away — is she being propelled by some other, more sinister fuel?

Yes, that IS the question.

...at the Asian Games, 11 of their number tested positive for a banned testosterone and China was stripped of nine of its 23 golds.

Further scandals followed at regular intervals throughout the Nineties and 2000s, including the discovery, in 1998, of 13 vials of a human growth hormone - enough to supply the entire team - in the kitbag of a female Chinese swimmer during a routine search at Sydney airport.

So, is Ye just the latest example? Let's review the evidence:

  • Ye looks "androgynous" at 16 years old
  • Ye was exceptionally muscular even at 7 years old, when she was chosen to participate in China's Olympics program.
  • China's Olympics program is SCARY.
  • Her mom claims she's a happy teenager... But c'mon, seriously?
  • Something about pull-ups.
  • Ye practices for several hours each day.
  • Chinese swimmers have doped in the past.
  • A swimmer from East Germany cheated at the Olympics 32 years ago.

And so the question gnaws away...

I'm as obsessed with Missy Franklin as the rest of America, and actively rooting against evil empires from around the world is part of what makes the Olympics fun, but if we're going to take a serious look at Ye Shiwen, it's important to remember that real life is not Rocky IV.

That British piece sort of feels like a strawman here, but for one thing, there are plenty of other journalists offering up polite accusations from London. For another, the British article is really just a bunch of our living room conspiracy theories thrown into a newspaper. With China leading the world in gold medals for a second straight Summer Olympics, there's this impulse from all Westerners to call it illegitimate. Or at the very least, we can call their training inhuman.

Those living room doubts about China are totally fine as far as I'm concerned, because the Chinese state is a terrifying caricature in 100 different ways, and we're Americans and freedom costs $1.05. When he heard that China had already kicked off one swimmer for doping, one of my friends said, "Maybe they kicked her off for not doing enough steroids." Part of the fun with the Olympics is launching completely unfair accusations at rival countries, and it's great.

Having said that... If we're going to keep a straight face about all this and pretend to be objective, we can't seriously put the West on a pedestal just because we're not at the top of podium.

  • Yes, Chinese training programs are probably every bit as batshit insane as you'd imagine, and there are definitely anecdotes that horrify the rest of the world. But in general, the Chinese programs can't be much different from what goes on at European soccer academies or America's Olympic training programs, both of which take kids from their homes and make constant training a lifestyle. Everyone is insane about this stuff. If anything, China's just more transparent and proactive about it all, and training in the West is marketed better.
  • Yes, Chinese coaches have faced allegations of abuse. USA Swimming was sued over sexual abuse in 2010. A week ago there was another lawsuit.
  • Yes, the Chinese have been caught doping over and over again. But in that department, Americans have as rich a tradition as anyone, and really, the Olympics themselves are one long case study in the evolution of performance enhancing drugs.

There's a chance Ye Shiwen was part of that doping tradition, insofar as there's a chance any world record breaking Olympian was doping. But for every piece of circumstantial evidence that says she probably cheated, you can find past Olympic superstars like Ian Thorpe and multiple sports science experts who say there's a good chance she didn't.

So instead of harping on the uncertainly, let's just be honest: If it had been Missy Franklin blowing away the competition, she'd be the most adored athlete on earth this week. Instead it was a Chinese prodigy, so there's been all this respectful, loaded speculation detracting from what she did, all while giving everyone another excuse to raise an eyebrow at China's incredible success.

It's insulting to a phenomenal athlete and her country because "respectful doping speculation" is an oxymoron, but it also just makes us just look insecure and naive.

We want to China's success to be hollow. There are huge cultural differences that underlie some of what horrifies Westerners, but that doesn't matter. They must be gaming the system and doping, or if not, they're kidnapping athletic children and ruining lives and working from the East German blueprint, just plugging in new pawns for a propaganda campaign. It has to be sinister somehow, and it's all kinda pathetic. While the West worries about testing Ye and scrutinizing China, whatever happened to just respecting them and then beating them? Isn't that what Rocky IV was about?

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