Belfast Telegraph

It's the taking part, freely, that is really what counts

By Christina Patterson

She's fast. Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old Chinese girl who seems to be causing quite a fuss, is very fast. She's so fast that she managed to swim 400 metres, winning a gold medal, and breaking a world record, five seconds faster than she's ever swum it before.

She's so fast that some people don't believe it. They do believe she did it in the time she did it. What they don't believe is that she swam so fast without the help of drugs.

She looked, said the top US swimming coach, "like Superwoman". He didn't mean that Ye Shiwen looked really good. He meant she didn't swim like a normal human being.

And she didn't. It was the kind of swim that would make you think that the person who did it had taken drugs.

Ye Shiwen says she hasn't and her tests have been clear. Whether she has or not, there's one other thing that's clear: nothing in Ye Shiwen's short life has been what anyone would call normal.

She was seven when picked out at school by one of eight million teachers ordered to spot sporting talent. If you got spotted, you were sent to one of about 8,000 specially-built 'training camps'.

Children are sent to these camps because those in charge thought it more important for their countries to win medals than their people to be free.

When the top American swimming coach said Ye Shiwen's performance was "unbelievable", he sounded fed up. You would be fed up if you thought your country might be beaten by a country that was cheating. But you might also be fed up if you were beaten by a country that wasn't.

You might well think the training schools that were like factories for medals sounded like the real factories in the country that was going to overtake you and which made the gadgets you now felt you couldn't live without.

You might remember things you'd read about the people who worked in them; how they slept in massive dormitories and had to handle dangerous chemicals. You might remember the suicide nets that were put up on those factories to stop people from leaping to their deaths.

You might, in fact, think about the things we call 'success'. You might think that winning a medal, if you'd taken drugs, definitely didn't count as success, but that you weren't at all sure that winning a medal if you'd lived your life as a kind of prisoner did.

If you were a citizen of a country that used to be a leading world power and was now only the sixth-biggest economy in the world and which happened to be hosting the Olympics you might be pleased.

You might think the opening ceremony, funny and charming and a little mad, told the world we had a lot to be proud of, but that the most important thing about our country wasn't our pride.

You might think about the young men who won a medal that hadn't been won for 100 years and who practised because they wanted to and entered the Olympics because they wanted to.

And you might well think that there were times when bronze was worth an awful lot more than gold.

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