I’ve been enjoying the Olympics from the vantage point of my air-conditioned couch, and because I’m in Japan I’m getting to see only the sports that interest Japanese viewers, so at the moment it’s wall-to-wall Judo and swimming. Of course, having something of a soft spot for China I’m quite happy to see them coming up in the world of olympic sports, and this year’s sensation is Ye Shiwen, the 16 year old swimmer whose performance has sparked controversy. An American high up in swimming circles claims she must be a drug cheat, because not only did she beat a man in one leg of her medley (and not just any man – an American man), her times have improved rapidly in just a year or two, and her freestyle leg was just so much faster than her other legs.

Of course this has pissed off the Chinese delegation and Chinese media no end, though to her credit Ye Shiwen has responded in a level-headed manner both in and out of the pool. But she might be surprised to hear that she has found some strong defenders in the Australian press. The Sydney Morning Herald has an article disputing all the main claims of the American coach, and suggesting that both Australian and American achievers could be accused of drug cheating if judged on their performance alone. About Ms. Ye swimming faster than an American man (Lochte) in her freestyle leg, he points out that she didn’t actually beat his medley speed overall, and in any case four other men in Lochte’s race did beat Ye’s time in the same leg – they were all swimming their hearts out to catch up with Lochte, which is what Ye had to do in her freestyle leg to catch the leader.

John Leonard’s other big complaint is that Ye shaved five seconds off her previous best at this Olympics. The Herald’s article tears this complaint apart:

It wasn’t an insinuation Rice had to deal with when she clocked her world record in 2008, which was at the time an absurdly fast result.

Earlier that year, Rice shaved a startling six seconds off her personal best time to hit 4.31.46 at the Australian trials. American Katie Hoff reclaimed the mark a few months late before Rice countered at the Beijing Games, reducing it to below 4.30 for the first time. In contrast, people seized on the fact Ye reduced her PB by five seconds to claim the new mark of 4.28.43 as genuine grounds for suspicion.

The article also points out that Leonard’s comparison of Ye’s times now with two years ago are unfair because of Ye’s age:

To the wider sporting world, Ye is only now becoming a notable name. Yet to swimming diehards, she has been one of the rising stars for some years, even if her surge of form in London has caught most people by surprise. Beisel and Rice had been the favourites for gold.

Ye won the 200m IM at the Asian Games in 2010 (2.09.37) and the 400m IM (4.33.79), all at age 14. At the time, she was listed at 160cm tall. Now, the official Olympic site lists her 12 cm loftier at 172cm. That sort of difference in height, length of stroke and size of hand leads to warp-speed improvement.

To me these paragraphs also contain an insinuation of bad faith against Leonards: he clearly, as a swimming insider, knows that Ye’s times have grown with her age and body size, and should be aware of her history. So why is he making the complaints so openly now? Would he be happy to have them made against Michael Phelps or Stephanie Rice when they started their careers? Is it fair on Ye that her improvement should be immediately slated home to drugs? The accusations have already hit home, with the doping committee making an unprecedented release of her pre-olympic drug testing results to calm the waters, but it’s probably the case that the claims won’t die down.
I think that she’s probably not a drug cheat (or if she is, she’s doing the same undetectable cheating as everyone else) and Leonards and others who insinuate that she is are well aware that her performance is natural. But these people are watching their nation’s long-standing dominance of this sport sliding out of their grip as China’s performance improves. There are also insinuations of “military-style training camps” (always a marker of repression when they do it, but of efficiency when we do it), tightly-controlled sporting worlds, etc. But in fact the Chinese swimming world is quite open and employs foreign coaches, one of whom wrote an illuminating opinion piece for the Guardian, indicating exactly why China is improving its performances so fast: hard work. This coach writes:

Chinese athletes train incredibly hard, harder than I can explain in words and as a coach who has placed swimmers on five different Olympic Games teams, I have never seen athletes train like this anywhere in the world.

They have an unrelenting appetite for hard work, can (and will) endure more pain for longer than their western counterparts, will guarantee to turn up for practice every single time and give their all. They are very proud of their country, they are proud to represent China and have a very team focused mentality.

He adds that there is no special talent selection program, but that he just selects those players he sees and thinks are good. But he gives an interesting insight into the supposedly centrally-managed, state mandated programs that are always painted in such a negative light when they compete with Western athletics – in fact, like so much of Chinese “communism” they’re probably more free market than those in the West:

Let’s also not forget that this is their only avenue for income; most do not study and sport offers them a way out or a way up from where they and their families currently live in society. If their swimming fails, they fail and the family loses face … my athletes are salaried and receive bonuses for performance; I am salaried and receive bonuses for performance. We all want performance, not mediocrity, not sport for all, but gold medals – and they are not afraid to say this.

He also observes that China gives him all the funding he needs, and enormous freedom to manage his coaching programs:

If I want a foreign training camp, money is available; if I want high-altitude training – money is available; if I want an assistant coach – money is available; if I want some new gadgets or training equipment, guess what? Money is available.

I think this is the real threat that people like Leonards are worried about. As China becomes wealthy, it is pouring money into playing catch up not just industrially and economically, but in the cultural and scientific pursuits that have traditionally marked out the west as “advanced,” on the assumption that fast development in these areas will lead to results that will challenge western cultural hegemony. They don’t want to be pinned down to traditionally “Asian” sports that often have lower value (ping-pong, badminton, the traditional martial arts) but want to compete in areas that, by being traditionally western strongholds, often have higher cultural value attached to them: swimming, basketball, soccer and gymnastics. And by dint of their combination of rapid economic growth, rampant nationalism, and highly successful mix of central planning and free market ideas, they’re going to catch up fast. The doyens of a previous era of cultural and sporting superiority don’t want to accept it, just as a previous generation of industrialists couldn’t accept Japanese superiority in industry, and a previous generation of military planners couldn’t believe Japanese naval and air superiority.

As China continues to improve its sporting prowess, I think we’ll see more of the same, allied at times with accusations of cheating and corruption. But I think, given the sour grapes China’s growth is producing in many areas in the west, we should approach many claims about their sports programs and sportspeople with a great deal of cynicism and caution.

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