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At the Games: Too fast not too bad?

Publication Date : 01-08-2012


Faster is breathtaking. Faster is part of the Olympic creed. Faster is the essence of competition. But sport is not without irony. For an athlete must never go too fast.

Speed beyond a seemingly logical point - even if the whole idea of sport is to defy logic - can turn the word "unbelievable" from compliment to insinuation. Speed can become a debate of science and suspicion. Speed is swimmer Ye Shiwen's gift and yet it has become her burden.

Ye, from China, broke the world record in the 400m individual medley. This was acceptable. That she is 16 is interesting, though 15-year-old Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte won the 100m breaststroke but not with similar finishing dramatics. That Ye swam her last 50m faster than Ryan Lochte did when winning the men's 400m individual medley was staggering. That she was seven seconds faster than at the 2011 World Championships was intriguing. Put together for some Ye's swim was unacceptable enough to be called "disturbing".

How does a woman swim faster than a man? Actually she was 23.25 seconds in total slower than Lochte, but it was the finish that had even Michael Phelps saying, not unkindly though: "She almost outswam me, too. We were all pretty shocked. It's pretty impressive that she went that fast."

Is all this just plain sad?


Because she hasn't failed a drugs test. Because as Duncan Goodhew, a former Olympic champion, said: "I think it is very destructive and very irresponsible of anybody to accuse people until they are proven guilty."

Is it jealousy?

If so, it is mortifying.

Not every critic is automatically a China-baiter, but some nations remain uncomfortable with China's success. Maybe there's a subtle double standard in operation. In 2008, the speed and margin of Usain Bolt's 100m win was almost illogical, but he was embraced as freak not potential fake.

Maybe since the world knows what Lochte eats, and tyres he flips, yet has inadequate information on how the Chinese train, there is suspicion. And even if a little openness from China would be good politics, our ignorance isn't licence for accusation.

But is the conversation on Ye completely unfair?

Yes and no.

Because, as much as we wait for the freakish in sport, we're conditioned to question it. Because we've been scarred before as monuments to genius turn out to be pillars of phoniness. Because if insinuation is unfair to athletes now, then it is only the child of a cynicism spawned by their predecessors.

Many East Germans from the 1970s onwards were too fast. And then revealed to be on steroids. In that era's saddest tale, the pills left shot putter Heide Kreiger with masculine traits, she opted for sex reassignment surgery and became Andreas. As he told the New York Times once: "They killed Heidi."

Sprinter Ben Johnson in 1988 was too fast. Swimmer Michelle Smith in 1996 may have been too fast. Marion Jones in 2000 was too fast. All were banned. It has left us with record books that we're not certain whether to believe.

The high moral ground in doping is available to no nation. American baseballers and sprinters have been revealed as cheats and so have Chinese swimmers. At the 1994 Asian Games many tested positive and at the 1998 World Championships four were sent home. In the Sydney Morning Herald, a former Chinese Olympic doctor is quoted as saying: "It was rampant in the 1980s."

Questioning the surprisingly brilliant act is a way to protect our sports. But suspicion also has to bend in front of benefit of the doubt.

For all the talk, not necessarily incorrect, about Ye owning a reserve of strength that is outrageous, the truth remains that athletes are built differently.

Cyclist Miguel Indurain had a lung capacity of eight litres (six is the average) and Bjorn Borg had a resting heart rate below 50. With Ye, we're unsure. We haven't put her in a lab and neatly broken down her physical splendour.

But maybe she isn't completely the mystery she is posed as. In last year's World Championships, at 15, she was in fifth place in the 200m IM final, yet covered the last 50 metres in 29.42 to win. She finished extraordinarily fast then, too, and so she hasn't really come out of nowhere.

Maybe if Ye - who swam the 200m IM overnight - ever tests positive, the embarrassment for the outraged Chinese, and the damage they will have done to the legitimacy of their future athletes, will be incalculable.

Maybe till then we should just marvel at the prowess of this nation. And enjoy this unique athlete who is trying to tell us that too fast isn't necessarily always too bad.


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