Mihir Bose: Questions over Ye Shiwen's Olympic victory arise from China's secrecy


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The only surprise about the storm generated over whether China’s 16-year-old wonder swimmer Ye Shiwen has taken drugs is that it has blown up so swiftly. Normally, after a new Olympic star steps on the podium to accept gold, there is a decent pause before the whispering starts.

It did not help of course that Ye did something that was truly unheard of. In winning the 400 metres individual medley, she not only broke the world record but actually swam faster than a man: her time of 28.93 seconds in the last 50 metres of the freestyle leg easily bettered the 29.1 seconds that the American Ryan Lochte had managed in the men’s event minutes earlier.

While this might have encouraged the doubters to find their voices quickly, the sad fact is that it will never be a bright sunny morning when a champion emerges doing something truly out of the ordinary. Even as we gaze at the brilliance, a small voice at the back will keep whispering: remember Ben Johnson, Seoul 1988.

On that dreadful night, the Games lost their innocence. Johnson, having proclaimed himself the fastest man on earth by winning the 100 metres, was found to be a drug cheat. Since then, for all the talk of catching cheats, the Olympics have not exorcised that shadow. As Michael Johnson, one of the greatest 400 metres runners, put it to me, it changed forever how we react to an amazing sporting phenomenon.

“It was a huge scandal. It affected the Olympics, it affected all sports. Twenty years ago the debate between two guys in the bar would have been who is the better athlete? Now it is which guy is on drugs and whether the performance they saw is real or not.”

The Chinese will argue: to ask that question of Ye - who won gold in the 200 metres individual medley as well last night and has never failed a drug test - may seem grotesquely unfair.

Just because China has a dreadful past of swimming cheats does not mean the 16-year-old should be tarred with the same brush. However, as drug testers will tell you, the cheats are always one, if not several, steps ahead of the testers. That is why samples from London will be retained for eight years, as those from Athens were stored.

The hope is that, as testing techniques get more sophisticated, those who got away in London will eventually be caught. Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, who has complete faith in the Chinese swimmer, may see this as a deterrent. I am not so sure.

What makes it more difficult for Ye is that she comes from a country which remains a closed sporting world. Whatever the Beijing Olympics may have achieved, they did not open China up and the country’s sports policy did not change. 

All other countries interact with each other through sport. Their athletes may be fierce competitors on the field of play but they often prepare together and their friendship off the field of play means that they know a lot about each other.

British swimmers train with their American rivals in the United States and Ruta Meilutyte, Lithuania’s gold medallist in the 100 metres breaststroke, is so much part of this country that she can claim to be an honorary Brit. She lives in Plymouth, has an English swimming coach, Jon Rudd, trained at the Plymouth Leander Swimming Club and studied at Tom Daley’s alma mater.

It is impossible to find such Chinese interaction with the rest of the sporting world. Their system - catch them young, take them away to train in special schools - is still the one designed by the Soviet bloc. And, as in the old Soviet days, the Chinese often appear at major international competitions as virtual unknowns. Given that the Soviet system was fuelled by drugs - so much so that some of the records created by the East Germans will never be bettered – is it any surprise that a new Chinese wonder generates suspicion? 

Rather than see Western jealousy, China would do better to open up its system and demonstrate that it has nothing to hide.

Not the greatest

Can we please get away from this pointless debate over whether Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian. Yes, he has won more medals than any other - 19, 15 of them gold - but that does not justify giving him the crown. For a start, it is difficult to compare athletes of different generations.

And it is one thing doing it in the same sport. But to compare athletes from different sports makes no sense.

Phelps sport gives him an advantage denied to all other athletes. A swimmer can compete over the same distance in different styles more than once, something that it is not possible on the track.

So Phelps can over the same distance do the freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke and a medley which combines them all. As many track and field athletes have pointed out, they would have many more medal chances if they could run in more than one race just by varying how they ran: backwards, or with one hand tied behind their backs or held over their heads.

Phelps is a great swimmer but the greatest Olympian remains Jesse Owen. His four golds in 1936 came in Nazi Germany where, as a black man, he was considered subhuman. Owen took sport to a new level.

The French sign on the British?

Has the Paris Tourist Board put a jinx on British gold hopes? Absurd you may say but consider this. Exactly a month before the Games began, the Paris tourist board launched a competition offering British citizens a luxury holiday in Paris every time Britain won a gold.

Jean-Pierre Blat, the board’s managing director, said the French wanted to make up for being churlish when London beat Paris to host the Games. And, asked how he would feel if the battle for gold was between Britain and France, Blat said, “A little bit of our heart would be French but we would support the British athlete beating the French. We hope you will win a lot of medals so plenty of British people will win a chance to visit Paris.”

Yet now, while France has eight medals including four golds, led by swimming sensation Yannick Agnel, Britain still has to register gold.

It could be that, in the last month, such has been the exodus of the British to the French capital - no doubt led by moaning London cabbies - that the French tourist officials are no longer rooting for our athletes. Or was the competition always meant to be a joke at our expense?