Before the London Olympics began, China’s chances of topping the United States in the overall medal count seemed like a long shot. Not any more.
China has come out flying at the start of the Games, taking nine gold medals already and 17 overall. The U.S. has also won 17 but has just five golds.
But instead of winning applause, China’s success is being met with suspicion.
The focal point is 16-year-old swimmer Ye Shiwen who won the 400-metre individual medley on Saturday. Ye not only smashed the world record in the event, she finished seven seconds faster than she swam at the world championships last year and she covered the last 50 metres in a better time than the men’s gold medalist Ryan Lochte. Ye didn’t stop there. She set an Olympic record in the semi-finals of the 200m IM on Monday.
“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,” John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, told the Guardian newspaper. “That last 100m was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers, for people who have been around a while.”
Her performance also prompted a barrage of questions for Arne Ljungqvist, head of anti-doping at the International Olympics Organization. Ljungqvist defended the young swimmer, saying a remarkable result shouldn’t be grounds for suspicion. “To immediately suspect someone is a bit sad,” he said Monday. “To me it’s against the fascination of sport.”
But Ljungqvist added that the IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency consider a sudden improvement in performance as grounds to target an athlete for extra attention. And China certainly has a history of drug cheats. In the 1990s, 40 Chinese swimmers were banned after testing positive for banned drugs.
Ye and other Chinese officials have denied the doping allegations, saying the swimmer is the product of years of training and a system that has become successful developing young talent. Ye also trained in Australia with well-known coaches who earn far more for their efforts training Chinese athletes than others.
“There is absolutely no problem with doping. The Chinese team has always had a firm policy about anti-doping,” Ye said.
China’s strides toward Olympic glory have been nothing short of stunning. At the 1996 Games in Atlanta, China won 50 medals. The total increased steadily in subsequent Olympics and when Beijing hosted the Games in 2008, China took 100 medals including 51 gold. The Americans won more medals overall in 2008, taking 110, but fewer gold at 36.
Now in London, China is on track to do even better. The country could sweep all eight golds in diving and is expected to dominate other events such as badminton, gymnastics, shooting and table tennis.
So how has China managed to do it?
Some point to a system that focuses on select sports, scours the country for talent and then relentlessly develops it. In 2008, 38 of China’s 51 gold medals came in six sports: diving, gymnastics, badminton, shooting, table tennis and weight lifting.
Diving has been a particular success. The Chinese team took seven out of eight diving medals in 2008 and then swept the board at the 2011 world championships. If China wins all eight in London it will mark the first time any country has done that.
Yihua Li, a former Chinese Olympian who now coaches four-time medalist Canadian Émilie Heymans, said China’s diving program has several built-in advantages, and others that are the result of careful planning on the part of sports officials in the country.
“The population is huge, diving is really popular in China. They have right kind of body for diving, they’re not tall, they’re pretty quick,” she said. “They have the best facilities in the world, they have the most time for the coaches to teach them.”
Li started diving at the comparatively ancient age of 14, but today’s athletes are identified from the time they are 3 or 4.
Men’s tower diver Qiu Bo, a 19-year-old who is known as Mr. Perfect on account of the perfect 10s he racks up, is more typical of the new way of doing things; he is said to have started performing rudimentary somersaults at age 1, by age 4 his extended family pooled its resources to send him to a sports school.
Qiu Bo grew up poor in the Sichuan province and stands to make $500,000 if he wins a gold medal.
A North American coach who has worked with Chinese Olympic athletes has another theory about why the country has succeeded so famously in churning out world-class athletes: authoritarianism works.
Unlike Canada or the U.S., athletes’ rights are not top of mind, and there is no compunction as to whether it’s appropriate for a six-year-old child to train with quasi-Olympian intensity.
The state-controlled athletic apparatus also makes it such that a child who isn’t quite good enough for gymnastics, for example, can be diverted to diving at an early enough age to be exposed to high-performance coaching.
It’s not clear by any means that China will overtake the U.S. in total medals in London. But China is already the talk of the Olympics, for good and bad.