Christina Patterson: Sometimes the price of success is just too high

Ye Shiwen was seven when she was picked out at school and sent to one of the specially built 'camps'

Christina Patterson
Thursday 02 August 2012 00:41

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 managed to swim 400 metres on Saturday, winning a gold medal, and breaking a world record, five seconds faster than she's ever swum it before. If you think five seconds isn't very much, you probably haven't fought your way through crowds to see Olympic cyclists going through central London, and found that the whole thing was over in about three.

She's so fast that in the last 50 metres she swam faster than the fastest man. She's so fast that some people don't believe it. They do believe she did it in the time she did it, because there were lots of people to see it, and it was filmed, and it was probably filmed by most of the spectators, or at least the ones who bothered to turn up. But what they don't believe is that she swam so fast without the help of drugs.

She looked, said the top US swimming coach, "like Superwoman". When he said that, he didn't mean that Ye Shiwen, who has very big shoulders, and very big thighs, and might look a little bit unusual in the kind of uniform beach volleyball players think they have to wear, looked really good. He meant that she didn't swim like a normal (but very, very fit) human being.

And she didn't. It isn't normal to suddenly swim that much faster than you've ever swum before. It's the kind of swim that would make you think that the person who did it had taken 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. They were the kind of camps where you often cried with pain.

They sound like the kind of training schools they used to have in the Soviet Union. They sound, in fact, like the kind of school Petra Schneider, who won five gold medals for East Germany, did go to. And where she was fed like a battery-farm chicken, and forced to swim in a machine that sucked out air. And where she was known by a number, not a name.

Children were sent to these training schools, not because someone thought it would make them happy. They were sent to them 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 American 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 from a country that was used to being the richest and most powerful country in the world, but wouldn't be for much longer.

You might well think that the training schools that were like factories for medals sounded very much like the real factories in the country that was going to overtake you, and which made the smart-phones and gadgets you now felt you couldn't live without. You might remember things you'd read about the people who worked in them, and how they slept in massive dormitories, and had to handle dangerous chemicals, and worked very long hours for $150 a month. You might remember the suicide nets that were put up on those factories to stop people from leaping to their deaths.

You might, in fact, think about the things we call "success". You might think that winning a medal if you'd taken drugs definitely didn't count as success, but that you weren't at all sure that winning a medal if you'd lived your life as a kind of prisoner did. You might think that annual economic growth of nearly 8 per cent sounded great, until you found out about the chemicals, and the nets. You might, in other words, think that sometimes the price of success was too high.

And if you were a citizen of a country that used to be a leading world power, and was now only the sixth biggest economy in the world, and which happened to be hosting the Olympics, you might be pleased. You might think that the opening ceremony, which was funny and charming and a little bit mad, told the world that we had a lot to be proud of, but that the most important thing about our country wasn't our pride. 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.;

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