Ignore, for a moment, the rumours and suspicion. Picture a 16-year-old girl with short spiky hair and big feet, who can wear an Olympic gold medal around her neck and say she's the fastest woman to swim the 400-metre individual medley. Faster over the final 50 metres, even, than American sensation Ryan Lochte.
Not everyone buys the incredible story of China's Ye Shiwen. After her shocking gold-medal race shaved more than a second off the world record and stunned the swimming world, John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, called the teen's performance “unbelievable” – and in a suspicious way.
“We want to be very careful about calling it doping,” Leonard, who is also the executive director of the USA Swimming Coaches Association, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper.
“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. That last 100 metres was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers, for people who have been around a while.”
But are you a cheat just because you're good? Extremely, unbelievably good? Ye insists she's clean, and the International Olympic Committee's chief doping officer defended Ye against unproved suspicions on Monday.
Lochte himself joked he might have been beaten by Ye in a freestyle race.
Truth is, it's misleading to infer that Ye had even the tiniest hope of beating Lochte, says Ryan Atkinson, a biomechanist with Canadian Sport Centre Pacific, who has coached elite swimmers.
“Her [overall] time was 23 seconds slower than his,” Atkinson pointed out.
When comparing the two races, you have to look at the whole race and each swimmer's strategy, he said.
True, Lochte was 29.10 seconds in his last 50 metres of the eight-lap race, and Ye was quicker at 28.93. But Lochte went out fast, and “definitely slowed down towards the end,” he said. Ye, meanwhile, likely timed her race so she had more “left in the tank.”
And while Ye's final lap time of 28.93 seconds is incredible, the time is not completely unheard of in women's swimming, he said.
Ye continued to blaze through the pool on Monday, with the fastest time in the heats of the 200 IM, her best event, in which she is the world champion. She won the semi-finals in an Olympic-record time of 2 minutes 8.39 seconds and looks to be a lock for a second gold medal in Tuesday's final.
But what of China's dirty history in the sport – isn't that enough to cast legitimate doubts on Ye's times? The country has been mired in drug scandals since before Ye was born.
Chinese swimmers, including a handful of world-championship winners, failed 40 drug tests between 1990 and 2000, ending a brief period of dominance.
Even in London, where Chinese swimmers have already won several gold medals at the Aquatic Centre, doping still casts a long shadow. In June, one of Ye's former teammates, Li Zhesi, tested positive for the blood-boosting agent EPO. Zhesi had been a member of China's 2009 world championship 4x100-metre relay team and is not competing at these Olympics.
And now there's Ye.
Chinese athletes – and their respected Australian coaches –– are insisting that this isn't the same China that was a disgrace in the 1990s, when ripped, drug-fuelled swimmers emerged from nowhere to beat the world.
China now throws big cheques at some of swimming's sharpest minds, turning to foreign trainers to hone its swimming stars and make them more rounded and relaxed, too.
Ye has trained in Australia with two well-recognized coaches, Ken Wood and Denis Cotterell. Wood has had a contract with the Chinese Swimming Association since 2008, and 15 of China's swimmers in London, plus five of its relay swimmers, have trained at his academy north of Brisbane, rotating through in groups for a couple of months at a time, he told The Associated Press.
China pays him bonuses for Olympic gold and for swimmers' personal bests, and he also got a bonus when Ye won the 200 medley at the world championships in 2011.
No matter how you rationalize Ye's performance, she'll likely have to face the doping officers in the end, says Paul Melia, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, Canada's anti-doping administration.
Her incredible performances will be a “huge red flag” for FINA, swimming's governing body, he said.
“She'll be watched very carefully. They'll look at the sport, at the kinds of doping agents used in swimming and target test to see if there's any doing going on,” he said.
“They may track biological changes in blood and urine parameters as well. So I'm sure they're looking closely at all of those things and going forward I'm sure she'll be target-tested.”
Ye started swimming at 6 when a kindergarten teacher noticed her big hands and told her parents she was well-suited for the pool. She earned spots at the 2010 and 2011 world championships, where she won a gold in the 200 IM in Shanghai last year.
Ye was asked this week to explain her rise to prominence.
She credited her hard work.
“I'm very lucky – training is not very hard for me because I've been trained since childhood. We have very good scientific-based training. That's why we're so good.”
With a report from Allan Maki in London
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