When 16 year old Ye Shewin of China won the gold medal for the 400 m Individual Medley in London, it didn’t take long for the doubters to crawl out of the woodwork. John Leonard, executive director of the USA Swimming Coaches Association told the Guardian newspaper that her record breaking performance was “disturbing” and “suspicious”. Other athletes and officials climbed in, saying her performance was “interesting” (meaning I can’t prove it, but I know she cheated), or “insane” ( as in if you think she did this on her own, you’re crazy). What made her swim more amazing was that in the final 50m of her event, she swam faster than Ryan Lochte did in his gold medal performance at the same event.
So, reading between the lines of these comments you come up with these arguments. Firstly she’s a girl, and how can a 16 year old, 5’7″girl outswim Ryan Lochte? Secondly, her time improved by almost 5 seconds from her personal best. Thirdly, and probably, most importantly, this is China we’re talking about here – you know how these Communists win at all costs ethics work.
Except nothing has been proven. Sure, the East Germans were shown to have doped their athletes to the gills in the 80′s and 90′s and that only came out 20 years after the fact. And yes, the Chinese have a history of doping. Together with their recent history of out of nowhere athletic dominance, it’s one of those things that makes you go hmmm. But in today’s climate with constant in and out of competition testing, it is surely an order of magnitude more difficult to slip one by the testers. Of course it would be naive to assume that everyone is now clean and that WADA is ahead of the game, but let us not forget one of the leading principles of Western jurisprudence : Innocent until proven guilty. Ye has not once in her career tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Chinese athletes have taken over 100 doping tests since arriving in London and not one has been found positive. Until some smoking gun evidence comes to light, we should be honor bound, not only to give her the benefit of the doubt, but to refrain from reckless speculation about her record breaking performance, because in the absence of hard evidence, all you have is idle gossip and possibly, slander.
No such speculation was raised in these very same Olympic games when Ruta Meilutyte a 15 year old girl from Lithuania, won the 100m breaststroke in record time, beating her personal best by 2 seconds. Is it possible that she escaped the calumny heaped upon Ye because Meilutyte is caucasian and goes to school in England? Hey, malicious rumors should cut both ways, right? Going back just a little bit, in 1987, a 15 year old girl weighing 95 pounds improved the world record for the 800m freestyle by 2 seconds: her name – Janet Evans of the USA and her triumph then was regarded (and rightly so) as the achievement of a once in a generation athlete. It’s not as if the USA should be occupying the holier than thou soapbox either. It has its own doping history it would like to forget. Marion Jones is the most recent name to come to mind, but remember that the legendary Carl Lewis failed 3 doping test before the 1988 Olympics.
China, it must be said, does itself no favors in the perception arena. The overwhelming emphasis on “face” and its shameful past as the “poor man of the East” exploited by the West and even its own neighbors has endowed it with a win at all costs philosophy and a prickly “its my turn now” attitude. Its recent history in the Olympics would suggest that thin skinned pride drives much of its ambitions. From the bombastic spectacle of the Beijing Olympics, to the underaged gymnasts, to the early identification and regimented lives of their athletes, the win at all costs mantra is hard to explain away. So when the badminton teams tank (in a not quite as subtle as you think way) so that their top 2 teams can advance to the finals, or when an olympic hero is not told of her grandparents passing or her mother’s cancer because it would be a distraction, then it becomes much easier to think the worst of their ethics and tar them with the same “all communists dictatorships are cheats” brush.
Yet there is another dimension that has not been examined extensively by the Western press, probably because they are the Western press. And that is because at the root of the China bashing is the not unfounded fear that China is passing them by. China’s star is ascending while the West, despite vigorous assertions to the contrary, is in decline. A new world order is about to commence, in which America and its allies are no longer the preeminent power on the planet. Chinese influence, in the world financial markets, in global matters, in military might, is poised to eclipse the postion that America has enjoyed for a century. For those who bought into that brand of American Triumphalism, the realization that they are no longer the baddest kid in the ‘hood must be very jarring indeed. So they’ll couch their fears in veiled allegations, innuendo and unsubstantiated conjecture, all the while helplessly watching the brass ring of power that they thought was their birthright, pulling away from them, like a young Chinese swimmer in the last 50 m of the IM.
Of course, some time in the future, perhaps in ten or twenty years, some solid proof of doping might emerge, in which case you may say – I told you so. But until then, to John Leonard and the rest of the doubters, I say: give credit where it is due, unconditionally and without reservation, and recognize the achievement of a remarkable swimmer for what it is – an outstanding performance by a gifted athlete, and a changing of the guard.