James Lawton: Ye Shiwen suspicions unfair but Olympic history obliges us
Published 01/08/2012 | 09:43
The young Tigress of swimming was almost in repose here last 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 length of time, then Ye hit a perfect, unbroken freestyle. She won in 2min 7.57sec and Hannah Miley came in seventh, nearly four seconds behind.
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 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 the Lithuanian prodigy Ruta Meilutyte, 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 100 metres breaststroke.
Could it have anything to do with the fact that she is schooled and trained in Plymouth and thus becomes automatically an Olympic citizen above suspicion?
For the Chinese it is being seen as confirmation of a prejudice that first surfaced in Atlanta in 1996, when the brilliant impact of Wang Junxia brought track gold and silver in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres.
Her coach, Ma Junren, raged that his methods were built around traditional potions and generous servings of turtle soup. The indignation was as ferocious then as it is now here when it was argued that a new athletic empire was being built on performance-enhancing drugs.
Yesterday 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. Ye was, though, not without her occidental defenders. Lord Moynihan, president of the British Olympic Association, said: "She deserves credit for a great achievement." But then how did he know, for sure?
Lord Coe pointed out that he had his own surges of form in a career that took him to gold medals in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. "What you tend to forget is the 10 years of work that has already gone into this point," he advised.
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'd hardly be the first.
Innocent until proven guilty is the cry and it is one that every fair instinct is inclined to support, but when the Moynihans and the Coes ask us to believe that all is as we would see it in the best of all possible worlds they are rather lopping off chunks of recent sports history.
They 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.
They might also recognise – maybe along with the Chinese – that even though the controversial coach Junren disappeared into the mountains when six of his star athletes were among the 27 barred from travelling to Sydney in 2000 after failing blood tests imposed by their own authorities, he was still insisting that his regime was merely about the herbs of the earth and a careful balance between the demands of speed and stamina.
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, 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. 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 the superwoman as projected. 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 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 swimming, 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 1-66.
It is the most natural thing to believe in a young girl who has worked ferociously hard. But it's not wrong or ungenerous to remember this is an age which has inherited a certain burden of proof. That, anyway, was just one reservation that last night Ye Shiwen reduced to a small piece of bobbing flotsam – at least for a little a while.