Ye Shiwen: Freak of nature or a lighting rod for controversy?
By JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency
China's Ye Shiwen smiles after winning the women's 200-metre individual medley final during the London 2012 Olympic Games, July 31, 2012. (TOBY MELVILLE/Reuters)
LONDON - The young tigress of swimming was almost in repose here Tuesday night. Ye Shiwen lowered the Olympic record, the one she had set a few hours earlier, by a mere one and a half seconds. If you didn’t know better, you might have guessed someone had suggested she didn’t draw too much attention to herself.
However, this is not the most practical proposal once you have allowed her anywhere near a body of water.
For three legs of the women’s 200m individual medley, which she won for her second gold of these Games on which at 16 she has indeed landed like some unfathomable force of nature — well, that is one theory — there was an illusion of competition. Alicia Coutts of Australia and the American Caitlin Leverenz stayed in the race for a remarkable lengthy of time, then Ye hit a perfect, unbroken freestyle.
Inevitably, as she sang her national anthem as tentatively as it seemed to demand and put the red flag around her shoulders, there were two most obvious questions.
One has been asked solidly for two days now. Is she real? The other one concerns quite how tight her grip can become.
The Chinese had some questions of their own as the tide of suspicion threatened to engulf their young heroine before that last leg of unmatchable authority.
High on the list is one asking why she is bombarded with doubt while Lithuanian prodigy Muta Meilluytye, who has also made stunning progress and in an even briefer time but without, thus far at least, a single question mark raised against her gold medal in the 100M breaststroke.
Tuesday, one Chinese official spoke of “Western arrogance” and made the point that Michael Phelps left Beijing four years ago with eight gold medals but not a single speck of dirt against his name. Unfortunately, a few other things which you couldn’t obscure with a forest full of magic mushrooms are not so easily put aside.
One is that if this phenomenal young Chinese swimmer with big hands and big feet — the potential tools of a brilliant swimming career, her primary schoolteacher astutely noted when she was just six years old — and a sweet smile is the result of something more than pure natural talent and strength, she would hardly be the first.
People should remember how deeply ran the doubt when Florence Griffith Joyner — the late, tragic Flo-Jo — swept home in Seoul under the shadow of the Ben Johnson affair and a great phalanx of International Olympic Committee members turned their back on her celebrations and pointedly refused to applaud.
Yes, it may be unfair to question the achievements of the young girl who has come among us with such searing speed and strength, but can the world of the Olympics begin to say that it has given us no reason for cynicism?
When the head of Olympic anti-doping says the guilty will be caught and punished, does he expect us to take it as something written in stone? The IOC didn’t get the Irish swimmer Michelle Smith when she improved to an astonishing degree before winning the gold in the same 400m race Ye swept up so overwhelmingly at the start of these Games. Anyone who suggested that Smith was a suitable case for doubt was abused and scorned in Ireland. Then, after much profit and glory, she was banned.
Four years later in Sydney, Marion Jones was not quite the superwoman as projected, but she won some medals and escaped detection.
In Athens, Greece’s greatest sprint stars, a gold-and-silver-medal man and woman, ran, ludicrously, away from the drug testers.
It is not a climate to create the kind of trust that was being urged upon us here last night, but then of course you try.
You point out there are stranger things under the sun than the fact that Ye finished the last 50 metres of her first gold medal performance faster than the new lion of American beefstake, Ryan Lochte, in his equivalent race.
You consider the possibility that rather than the creation of some dubious sports architecture, Ye Shiwen is a glorious freak of nature — a girl who can cross the line of human probability with such certainty that some bookmakers yesterday were imposing odds of 1 to 66.
It is the most natural thing to believe in a young girl who has worked ferociously hard to reach levels of unprecedented achievement.
But then nor is it wrong, or ungenerous, to remember that this is an age that has indeed inherited a certain burden of proof.
That, anyway, was just one reservation that Tuesday night Ye Shiwen reduced to a small piece of bobbing flotsam — at least for a little a while.
- James Lawton writes for The Independent in the UK
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