Ye Shiwen: too good to be true?

The success of Ye Shiwen and the absolutely stunning 100m freestyle leg of her winning 400m medley final performance should be one of the enduring, endearing images of the 2012 Olympics. But I really don’t think it is quite as simple as that I’m afraid. I wish that it was, but I have to confess to having a few niggling doubts regarding what she has achieved.

Before I do though, it’s worth remembering that above all Ye is a superb swimmer, just like all of the athletes who represent their countries at the Olympics. She’s been a winner throughout her career. As someone who swims regularly and in my younger days competitively I’m aware how much effort these people put in and how amazing they are.

And as I discussed yesterday I’m not one to be overly critical of athletes who use methods to enhance their performance that are ‘illegal’. It isn’t the straightforward moral dilemma that it is often presented as.

But it’s also my experience of the sport that makes me question whether this fairytale is just a little too good to be true.

Let’s think about this for a moment.

Professional swimmers often train between 35-40 hours a week in the pool, i.e. it’s a full time job. They are on the very edge of their abilities and do everything humanly possible to maximise their speed. Significant improvement is measured in fractions of a second, as when you reach the standard these people are competing at the ability to make enormous strides forward simply doesn’t exist.

The margin between victory and defeat can be extremely small, especially over an event like a 400m (medley or freestyle) where the race is finished in just over 4 minutes. Improvement is virtually always in tiny increments, and if one athlete manages to take a significant step forward in terms of performance then one can safely assume that the rest will either match it immediately or manage it shortly after.

And yet Ye Shiwen went seven seconds quicker in the Olympic final than she did at the World championship final a year earlier (held in her home country of China). That is a quite astonishing rate of improvement at elite level swimming. And what’s more much of that improvement is due to a quite breathtaking last 100m that was nearly four seconds quicker than the eventual silver medallist (who was leading before the freestyle leg started).

It has left many swimming experts bewildered and incredulous. To wit:

“If you look at the woman in question, and her biomechanics in the heats, she has a steady, moderately slow, six-beat kick……….All of a sudden in the Olympic final she turned it up to an eight-beat kick, which any coach will tell you is very difficult to maintain for 25m, much less 100m.”

If you know anything about swimming you will know how extraordinary Ye Shiwen’s achievement was. To lift the tempo of one’s kick like that is astonishing, especially at the end of a race. It isn’t impossible to imagine that it was achieved without illegal assistance. But it is incredibly difficult to imagine.

Of course swimmers improve and one can quite easily foresee a significant improvement between the ages of 15 and 16. But in this case significant means a second or two over 400m, not seven, and not having the bulk of that seven second improvement coming in the last 100m.

Michael Phelps got better and better in his early years. But never at that rate. It was incremental not a great leap forward, if you’ll excuse the awful pun.

On a good day I could probably swim a 400m freestyle in about 5:20 to 5:25, so as you can see I am much, much slower than Ye. To take 10-15 seconds off that time I would need to quit my job and train 20-30 hours a week for the next nine months or so, and even then it’s unlikely I’d manage to find that amount of time. I would have to vastly increase my hours in the pool. If Shiwen is a pro already she cannot revolutionise her training like that in relation to her peers (i.e. it wouldn’t be physically possible to do significantly more than any of her rivals as she would simply burn out) and yet we are being asked to believe that she has managed such a feat unaided by doping, steroids or whatever.

You’ll have to excuse a slight incredulity on my part.

The fact that it is an American coach, John Leonard, who has been willing to stick his head above the parapet and question the result has had predictable consequences. “Sour grapes”, “conceited yanks”, “racist” and “sexist” are just a few of the terms of endearment directed at him and his co-thinkers online and amongst the commentariat. The issue has almost escalated to the level of international diplomatic incident between the two countries. Ye’s father has suggested that the accomplishments of Chinese athletes have been belittled by the ‘arrogant west’.

The whole Chinese victimhood complex is wearing a bit thin quite frankly and the deployment of the nationalist card is actually a quite cynical way of trying to close down the debate. Of course it’s tempting to side with whoever is beating the Americans but in this case it’s pretty stupid.

In the first instance we know very well the lengths that the Chinese government are willing to go to to achieve Olympic success (although of course that’s an international phenomenon. Sport is used politically by all nation states). Another Chinese swimmer failed a test last month. We also know that viciously nationalist Stalinist dictatorships have plenty of previous when it comes to doping, steroid and hormone use and will stop at nothing to achieve sporting glory. A generation ago the East Germans partook in a programme of systematic cheating that happily sacrificed people’s lives and futures at the altar of sporting success.

We also know that there are plenty of athletes that made huge, sudden improvements (Flo-Jo, Michelle de Bruin, Michael Rasmussen and dare I say it Lance Armstrong) who later turned out to be up to no good and in some cases we found that out despite them never actually failing a test. (The big difference here of course is that Ye was successful already and is clearly too young to be one who has taken any steps down the road of illegality herself, but the point still stands.)

It’s been a trifle bizarre seeing some of the responses of the left to the issue, who have instinctively sided with Ye and the Chinese against the ‘sexist’, ‘imperialist’ Americans. They think that her success can simply be attributed to her hard work and determination. It’s almost as if they have forgotten their entire political education. The world doesn’t work like that. People don’t achieve proportionately to their efforts. There are structural, social and in the case of professional sports physical limitations that play a huge role in determining success. If you are already at the top of your game and training at your limits it is impossible to take huge steps forward without artificial training aids.

Its non-Americans using the ideology of ‘the American dream’ to discredit the argument of an American…..

It was another American, Greg LeMond, who was willing to sacrifice his reputation to question the results of his fellow pros. He was branded a heretic, troublemaker and obsessive at the time for not letting the issue drop and demanding to know how cyclists were producing performances that were ‘superhuman’. It turned out he was right all along and he has been vindicated. John Leonard hasn’t achieved that status yet, obviously, but it is also far too early to say he is simply wrong.

I really hope Ye Shiwen is innocent. If she is then she has produced one of the great swims of all time. But there is enough circumstantial evidence to make it perfectly reasonable to at least question the result and it isn’t sexist or racist to be suspicious. Based on a mountain of past evidence if something appears to be too good to be true in an endurance sport then it normally means it is, sadly.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Robert
    Jul 31, 2012 @ 20:44:56

    Money makes the world go around


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