Christina Patterson: The scandal isn't drugs, it's the training

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The Independent Online

She's fast. Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old Chinese girl who seems to be causing quite a fuss, is very, very, very, very fast. She's so fast that she swam 400 metres on Saturday, winning a gold medal, and breaking a world record, five seconds faster than she's ever swum it before. She's so fast that some people don't believe it. They believe she did it. But they don't believe she swam so fast without the help of drugs.

Ye Shiwen says she hasn't, and her tests have been clear. But whether she has or not, there's one other thing that's clear. And that's that nothing in Ye Shiwen's short life has been what anyone else would call normal.

She was seven when she was picked out at school by one of eight million teachers ordered to spot sporting talent. If you got spotted, you were sent to one of about 8,000 specially built "training camps", but these weren't the kind of camps where you lit fires, and sang songs. These were the kind of camps where you had to train all day long. Where you often cried with pain. Children were sent to there, not because someone thought it would make them happy. They were sent because the people in charge thought it was more important for their countries to win medals than for their people to be free. They didn't just think that winning medals was something that might make your country proud. They thought that not winning medals was something that might make your country ashamed.

When the top US swimming coach said that Ye Shiwen's performance was "unbelievable", he sounded pretty fed up. You would be fed up if you thought your country might be beaten by a country that was cheating. But you might also be fed up if you were beaten by a country that wasn't. You might be particularly fed up if you were from a country that always used to win the Olympics, but which didn't last time, and might not again.

And if you were a citizen of a country that used to be a leading world power, and which happened to be hosting the Olympics, you might be pleased. You might think about the young men who won a medal that hadn't been won for 100 years, and who practised because they wanted to, and entered the Olympics because they wanted to. And you might well think that there were times when bronze was worth an awful lot more than gold.