Ye Shiwen: Furor over 'unbelievable' gold brings cold war to London Olympics

An American coach raises the specter of doping in questioning the gold-medal performance by Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen in the women's 400 IM Saturday at the London Olympics.

David Gray/REUTERS
China's Ye Shiwen poses with her gold medal on the podium during the women's 400-meter individual medley victory ceremony at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre Saturday.

The Americans, it would seem, have a point. How does 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen come to the London Olympics and post a time five seconds better than her previous personal best in the 400-meter individual medley? How does she pound out a world record, swimming the final 50 meters faster than Ryan Lochte, who had almost set a world record for the men in the same event earlier in the night?

Then again, the Chinese and their defenders – including the British Olympic Association (BOA) – would seem to have a point, too. Ye has never failed a drug test, and this is not the 1980s: Athletes have never been so thoroughly tested. It is more than a little ungracious of a top American coach to blight a young swimmer's Olympic moment without any proof of wrongdoing.

And so we are left in a place that, unfortunately, feels a lot like a second Olympic cold war.

American John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, voiced aloud what many had been whispering when he said of Ye's swim Saturday: "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."

At this point, the question is not whether Mr. Leonard is right. That is impossible to know, and in the absence of any evidence whatsoever, Ye's achievement "deserves recognition,” as BOA chief Colin Moynihan said.

The true importance of Leonard's comments is that they tell us that, at least within the American swimming community, there is a growing sense that we have seen this movie before: An authoritarian country with little or no transparency puts its considerable weight behind a quest for Olympic glory and, perhaps a little sooner than expected, astonishing results follow.

Leonard even said: "That last 100 meters was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers, for people who have been around a while."  

Within the Olympic movement, that comment is the equivalent of an Iranian missile test – a clear act of provocation. And, on the surface, there would appear to be no way to stop this from escalating to DEFCON 1. 

Is China going to disassemble its opaque Communist political architecture and suddenly let the sun shine in?

And if China keeps dropping aquatic bombs in the pool, are the Americans going suddenly to forget the "unbelievable" achievements of other Communist powers past and accept these results as legitimate? 

The fact is, both sides can marshal persuasive arguments.

China, after all, is a rather large country with a little cash on hand. After a fair chunk goes to buying up US debt, there probably are a few yuan left over for training facilities, coaches, and youth programs. Put those two things together and how could the Chinese not get better at swimming – and fast. 

Briton Adrian Moorhouse, an Olympian at the Seoul Games, made this point to BBC5: "There are a lot of people in China and actually the base of their pyramid is so wide that if they train thousands and thousands of their kids they’ve got more to draw on. They might have just found their Michael Phelps.” 

Then again, such massive centralized sports bureaucracies can – and have – been used for more nefarious purposes. While antidoping is far ahead of where it was in the 1980s, it remains a cat-and-mouse game, and it does not strain reason to suggest that, perhaps, China could be ahead of the game. 

And that is the crucial point. As phenomenal as Ye's swim was, if it had been done by a Briton or an Aussie, Leonard might not have said anything. The doubts might still have been there, but those countries have built up goodwill through their openness.

Take 15-year-old Ruta Meilutyte coming from nowhere to beat American Rebecca Soni in the 100-meter breaststroke. If there are any doubts about her performance, no one has spoken to the media about them.

Then Ye does the amazing, and the accusations start flying.

Meilutyte is Lithuanian. No one is worried about the Lithuanian doping machine. 

Drugs, more than anything else, carry the potential to destroy the Olympics. They threaten the competitive fairness and international camaraderie that are the core of the Olympic Games and which make them more than a sporting event. 

Is Leonard violating those ideals or trying to save them? Are his comments sour grapes or prophecy?

The Olympic movement must hope it can find a way of answering those questions, or the spectacle that the Games represent could be diminished. 

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