Tom English: Top US coach suspicious of ‘unbelievable’ swim by Ye
THE controversy surrounding Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old world record-breaking swimmer from China and conqueror of Hannah Miley in Saturday’s 400m individual medley final, has intensified in the wake of comments made by one of the most senior figures in the sport.
John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association and also executive director of the USA Swimming Coaches Association, likened Ye’s astonishing performance to that of Michelle Smith, the Irish swimmer who won three golds at the Atlanta Games in 1996. Dubbed “Our Lady of the Chlorine” by those who disbelieved her protestations of innocence, Smith – now Michelle de Bruin – was banned for four years in 1998 after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Ye’s swim was “disturbing”, Leonard told the Guardian. “We want to be very careful about calling it doping. The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, ‘unbelievable’, history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved. That last 100m [of Ye’s in Saturday’s final] was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers, for people who have been around a while. It was reminiscent of a 400m individual medley by a young Irish woman in Atlanta.”
Leonard is an authoritative voice in swimming as coach and administrator and has received an award for his work in anti-doping. He has been with Team USA at six Olympic Games and has written widely on swimming.
Earlier yesterday, Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission and himself a respected veteran of the war against the dopers, spoke about the Ye controversy. Asked by The Scotsman if, given his vast experience and well-tuned antennae, he was seriously suggesting that he saw nothing suspicious in the swimming pool on Saturday evening, he replied: “I am pretty experienced in this matter, as you know, and have been at the Games since a long time and within anti-doping for 40 years. Should I have my suspicions, I keep them for myself first of all in order to find out if something is wrong or not.
“You ask me specifically about this particular swimming. I say no, I have not personally any reason other than to applaud what has happened, until I have further facts.” Later, he added: “I think it is sad, very sad, that an unexpected performance be surrounded by suspicions. It’s very bad for the integrity of the sport. I don’t like suspicions. I see a fascinating performance. I applaud until I see something. To immediately suspect someone for having done something because they performed extraordinarily is sad for Olympic sport. Suspicion I don’t like. I’d rather have facts. Maybe my English is poor, but suspicion to me is that you believe that person has done something and I don’t like that.”
This rather contradicted Ljungqvist’s statement about the nature of suspicion. “There are different reasons as to why we target certain athletes or a certain group of athletes,” he said when asked about dope testing. “A sudden raise in performance or a surprise win…we could regard that possibly as a reason to do it but I would rather say that it is tragic if that should be the primary reason for doing a test.”
Given the raw details of what Ye achieved on Saturday night, it’s no surprise that she is now the talk of the place. The questions surround the astounding last 100m of her final when she powered away as if she had a motor attached. For the last 100m she was timed at 58.68sec to the gold medal-winning Ryan Lochte’s 58.65sec in the men’s equivalent. For the last 50m she swam 28.93sec to Lochte’s 29.10sec. Given that Lochte is (a) male, (b) extraordinarily powerful and (c) the conqueror on the night of the greatest swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, whom Ye also out-swam in that last 50m, then it’s no wonder that the little 16-year-old’s performance has caused consternation.
In the history of the Olympics, this was the first time a woman had swum the last leg of a final faster than a man in an equivalent race. It’s also only six weeks since another 16-year-old Chinese swimmer, Li Zhesi, a former team-mate of Ye, tested positive for EPO. Li is not at these Olympics and is awaiting her suspension. Ye’s world-record time, 4:28.43, was seven seconds faster than her world championship time from last July, the kind of sharp spike that is making her the subject of animated discussion at present.
“The Chinese team keep very firmly to the anti-doping policies, so there is absolutely no problem,” has been her only comment so far. To that, you might reply, what about Li?
“I have been around swimming for four and a half decades now,” said Leonard. “If you have been swimming you know when something has been done that just isn’t right. I have heard commentators saying, ‘Well, she is 16 and at that age amazing things happen’. Well, yes, but not that amazing. I am sorry. At this point it is not believable to many people.
“No coach that I spoke to could ever recall anything remotely like that in a world-level competition. You have to question an outrageous performance – and that is an outrageous performance, unprecedented in any way, shape or form in the history of our sport.”
The wariness about what we saw in Ye’s final is set against a backdrop of her hair-raising, gender-beating time and Li’s failed test plus the weight of history going back to the 1980s and 1990s when more than 40 failed dope tests were recorded on Chinese swimmers. At the 1998 world championships in Australia, Yuan Yuan, a young swimmer, was caught with human growth hormone in her bag. One of the head coaches, Zhao Ming, got a four-year ban from the sport at the same time.
The other day, Gregg Troy, the head coach of the American swim team, was asked about Ye’s performance. “You guys can research that for yourselves,” he said. “It’s probably the fastest split by a woman. Ever.”
Yesterday, Ljungvist stated the battle against the dopers is entering new territory with intelligence methods being used to weed out the cheats. “We are obtaining information about what may be going on in the doping world in terms of transport and transfer of substances, how they are coming in and out of a country, for instance. It could be related to individual persons, it could be related to groups of persons, it could be related to environments, so we do not simply do random testing. We do it much more on solid information that could be of importance for finding, if so, the cheats.”
Maybe Ljungqvist should sit down with Leonard for a chat.
Miley will face Ye again today, this time in the 200m individual medley final. Miley finished second in her heat; Ye broke the Olympic record in hers.
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