Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen did quite well in the pool the other day, shattering the women’s 400m IM record with a time of four minutes and twenty three seconds. As a result, some people are suggesting that the 16 year old did something impossible, and that she is guilty of using performance enhancing drugs. The International Olympic Committee has come out in support of the athlete, saying that there is no evidence that she was cheating.
The unfortunate thing about Shiwen’s performance is that it actually isn’t about her exceptional time, or how she exploded in the last half of the race. If an athlete from America or Europe had posted the exact same time, in the exact same manner, it is unlikely that there would be any suspicion. Missy Franklin of the USA also did something remarkable in the pool, winning gold after swimming a qualifying heat under 20 minutes before, a miniscule recovery time. She, of course, did not immediately raise suspicion.
No, win or lose, Shiwen is under scrutiny not because her performance is unbelievable, but because she’s been caught in the middle of a narrative. The man at the forefront of the accusations, John Leonard, executive director of the USA Swimming Coaches Association, tipped off the narrative being played out. In his accusations, he implied that her performance was very similar to East German performances in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and that’s your first hint at where this narrative is going. China has become the villain, the evil land developer to the USA’s plucky dance crew.
The elements are in place. China is a communist country, which stands in opposition to America’s capitalist ideal. Their athletic program is secretive and kept largely out of site, but produces results. America, by contrast, is relatively open and transparent, and while their program also gets results they do prefer to be viewed as the underdog in this situation.
So, if a Chinese athlete does something exceptional in the pool, we’re going to see accusations, suspicions and general distrust. It’s not because the athlete is at fault, but because they are part of a larger narrative that is playing out. The entire thing is built on an idea that there is an enemy, that they are using underhanded means to win, and they must somehow be stopped through pluck and determination. It’s Rocky IV, except with a new country as an opponent.
It’s certainly possible that something untoward is happening in Chinese athletic programs, but that’s possible in any athletic program, in any country. Sometimes the urge to win overrides the need to do it ethically. However, in spite of this, I don’t find there to be much difference between Shiwen’s exceptional performance and that of Australian Stephanie Rice at the 2008 games. Both women performed better than they ever had before, broke world records, and posted times that exceeded their personal bests by over five seconds. The only difference is that Shiwen is part of the enemy, while Rice is not.
China is today’s East Germany and USSR, the mysterious country that provides the antagonists at the Olympic games, I expect more of their athletes will get this treatment.