LONDON – Ye Shiwen says she "absolutely [has] not" taken performance-enhancing drugs, and for those who would suggest otherwise, she echoed the message of her country's anti-doping association: Her critics are biased against China.
That's the message that was relayed after Ye's second gold medal of these Olympic Games, as she eased to a 200 individual medley victory over Australia's Alicia Coutts on Tuesday. What followed that victory was an overflowing press conference peppered with doping inquiries, and an awkward mid-sentence burst of spontaneous applause by one of Ye's Chinese media supporters. Such is life for the 16-year-old, who exploded onto the scene in these Games during a world-record 400 IM gold that has made her a focal point of controversy.
It was that race that triggered a prickly volley over the last 48 hours, capturing the attention of international media and threatening to rekindle decades-old animosities between the U.S. and Chinese swim programs. The first shot was fired by John Leonard – the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association – who questioned the authenticity of Ye's 400 IM victory. More to the point, Leonard told London's Daily Telegraph that Ye's final 100 meters in that race were quite simply "impossible."
That prompted a rally from British Olympic organizers, who pointed to Ye's clean drug tests and dismissed any who would speculate to the contrary. And in the latest response, China's anti-doping chief Jiang Zhixue told the country's state-run news agency Xinhua that it was a case of anti-Chinese sentiment from the West.
"Some people are just biased," Jiang said. "We never questioned Michael Phelps when he bagged eight gold medals in Beijing."
Ye echoed that opinion after winning gold on Tuesday.
"I also feel the same way," she said, pointing out that other young swimmers with multiple medals haven't been scrutinized. "They are biased against me."
Ye's 100 meters in question – the final freestyle leg of the 400 IM – went virtually stroke-for-stroke with U.S. 400 IM gold medalist Ryan Lochte's. Ye's 28.93 in her final 50 actually beat Lochte's 29.10, while her final 100 was nearly a dead heat, with Lochte going 58.65 to Ye's 58.68.
That ignited debate in the Aquatics Centre on Sunday morning, with many swimming insiders scratching their heads over the 16-year-old's sudden rise. Beyond the Lochte comparison, some pointed to Ye not having a defined track record in the long-course 400 IM, as well as her shaving more than a second off the world record – which was previously established by Australia's Stephanie Rice while wearing one of the now-banned "super swimsuits."
China's detailed history of doping in swimming during the 1980s and 1990s hasn't helped. Nor have the five junior Chinese swimmers who were given two-year bans by the country for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2009. All surely played a part in Ye's jaw-dropping numbers igniting a firestorm.
Then came Leonard's barbs in an interview with the Telegraph.
"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," Leonard told the Telegraph. "That last 100 meters was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers, for people who have been around a while. It was reminiscent of the 400-meter individual medley by a young Irish woman in Atlanta [documented doper Michelle Smith].
"Anytime someone has looked like superwoman in the history of our sport, they have later been found guilty of doping. … To swim three other splits at the rate that she did, which was quite ordinary for elite competition, and then unleash a historic anomaly, it is just not right. I have heard commentators saying, 'Well she is 16, and at that age amazing things happen.' Well, yes, but not that amazing, I am sorry."
Leonard's remarks were met with stiff rebuttals from Olympic officials, who quickly moved in to back Ye's reputation. London 2012 chairman Lord Coe told ITV News of the swimmer, "What you tend to forget is probably the 10 years of work that has already gone in to get to that point.
"You need to look back through her career," Coe said. "I think you've got to be very careful when you make judgments like that. But, yes, it is an extraordinary breakthrough."
British Olympic officials have taken to all forms of media to chide Leonard and support Ye's achievement, pointing to World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) tests, which the young swimmer has reportedly passed.
"We know how on top of the game WADA are, and WADA have passed her as clean – that's the end of the story," British Olympic Association chairman Lord Moynihan said in a news conference. "And it is regrettable that there is so much speculation out there in the press. I don't like it. I think it is wrong. That athlete, or indeed any athlete, that has never tested positive…should be supported by her federation and indeed everybody in the Olympic movement.
"If WADA have come out, and WADA have been absolutely specific, and she has gone through the WADA program and she is clean, that is the end of the story. Let us recognize that there is an extraordinary swimmer out there who deserves the recognition of her talent in these Games."
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