FanDuel - WFBC

July 31, 2012

Chinese Swimmer's Amazing Time Raises Questions: Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, 16, won the gold in the women's 400-meter individual medley, finishing the last 50 meters in 28.93 seconds. That speed was faster than men's gold medalist Ryan Lochte's 29.10 seconds in the same span, prompting BBC presenter Claire Balding to ask former British Olympian Mark Foste, "How many questions will there be, Mark, about somebody who can suddenly swim so much faster than she has ever swum before?"

posted by rcade to olympics at 12:19 PM - 23 comments

This is a lot better of an article than the Sporting News' holier than thou, borderline racist coverage.

I will tell you this; I saw nothing of the sort coming from the Sporting News back when Michael Phelps was setting world records left, right and centre.

posted by dfleming at 02:15 PM on July 31

With the disclaimer that I know nothing about competitive swimming, or whether this really is an eyebrow-raising time -- the Chinese sports federations clearly have a unique ability to create world-class athletes in sports in which they (as a culture/as amateur athletes) have no tradition whatsoever. One example from the winter Olympics is aerials: I have no idea if China even has a ski resort, and I wouldn't bet that any of their medalists can free-ski at all, but they don't have to to win medals. This parallels what they've done in many other sports. There's no rhyme or reason as Western sports culture would understand it, just someone said "Let's go get us some world dominance in that" and the program goes into gear. Eight or twelve or however many years later, bing! World class athletes in the sport of your choice.

In a weird way, I like this development. I see it forcing Western sports enthusiasts and athletes to ask themselves why they're doing what they're doing. In the United States, the kids who excel at aerials are ski-town kids who get dropped off at the area by the school bus after school, all day every day. They ski the whole mountain, they build kickers and go out of bounds and jump off all kinds of things they're not supposed to. They get chased by the ski patrol. They hang out with their buddies and learn when the pizza place in the base lodge gets rid of their leftovers. Now and then they see vid of some world-class athlete, or maybe one comes to town (or maybe one is a local...not at all unusual), and maybe they wonder if that could be them some day. If they go that route, eventually they have to become very focused and professional about it. But before they get to that point (if they ever do), they spend a long time doing what can only be called play. In the course of a competitive career, they may drift away from the love of the sport, but it's always there waiting for them.

It may be that the Chinese model will ultimately create a medals monopoly. If so, I hope that we -- the rest of the world -- can just let it go. The Chinese sports federations clearly have figured out how to win under the current rules. How undignified if the response is to tweak the rules to try and take away that advantage; how joyless if the response is to copy their methods.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 02:41 PM on July 31

the Chinese sports federations clearly have a unique ability to create world-class athletes

I have no idea whether this performance was chemically-aided, but isn't it possible the sheer weight of numbers they can bring to the table might result in amazing athletes?

posted by yerfatma at 03:00 PM on July 31

The Indian Olympic Committee says no.

posted by rcade at 03:02 PM on July 31

I will tell you this; I saw nothing of the sort coming from the Sporting News back when Michael Phelps was setting world records left, right and centre.

Certainly there is some (at best) latent "homerism" or xenophobia at play here, but I think Phelps' trajectory and improvements were more in keeping with those that would typically be seen with world class athletes, plus there was the whole "supersuit" thing that had world records dropping like flies in the swimming events at the last Olympics.

As to the ability of China to put forth world class athletes, I think numbers certainly has something to do with it, but the Chinese also do a very good job of identifying children with unique physical attributes and pushing them into full-immersion training programs at an early age. India has neither the financial resources nor the authoritarian system to pull this off.

posted by holden at 03:23 PM on July 31

I've never heard a country raise questions about their own athletes' performances when they defy expectation, so it is, by default, sort of left to everyone else to say, hey, wait a sec. I believe this happened to Michelle Smith, an Irish swimmer several years back.

Graphing a racer's stats and having someone with no special interest in sport look at them might be one way to go.

As for how China develops athletes, I admire that model in some ways. I also agree with lbb that other, less intensive ways into sport don't seem so prone to unhealthy "cog in the machine" endgames for young people. However, I think that story is, in many sports, demonstrably unrealistic these days. I know you were only speaking to aerials, but watching my somewhat-talented kid run up against intensively-trained 12 year olds in semi-rural Iowa in practically every sport he tries has been a come-uppance for us. And we haven't even thought about wrestling.

posted by Uncle Toby at 03:49 PM on July 31

I have no idea whether this performance was chemically-aided, but isn't it possible the sheer weight of numbers they can bring to the table might result in amazing athletes?

Clearly the numbers are a factor in their favor, but they're also doing things very differently than anyone else (or at least, differently than we do in the west). As to whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, that depends on what your goal is.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 04:17 PM on July 31

From the British coach now working with the Chinese team: Chinese athletes train harder.

posted by rodgerd at 06:10 PM on July 31

I also think the Chinese have less of an issue with total government control of those things than Americans. It's a completely different philosophy at work.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 06:26 PM on July 31

It's kind of hard to know if that's the case, Weedy. It's not like saying you disagree gets you a bright and happy future in China. Certainly there's a lot of anger in Hong Kong about steady encroachment of the Party on their rights and freedoms.

posted by rodgerd at 06:30 PM on July 31

She's 16 years old. It doesn't seem surprising for a swimmer so young to get much stronger an a much shorter period of time than an older teenager or a full-grown adult might.

posted by Hugh Janus at 07:38 PM on July 31

But Hugh, it does seem surprising that a teenager female would suddenly turn in a time faster than a male in his prime, doesn't it?

posted by Uncle Toby at 10:20 PM on July 31

But Hugh, it does seem surprising that a teenager female would suddenly turn in a time faster than a male in his prime, doesn't it?

Well, it depends.

She might have had a lot more left in the tank for her final lap than what Lochte had. I think Lochte was being pushed pretty hard right up until the final lap, while she had pretty much started to pull away before she turned in that lap. If Lochte is on fumes and she's not as winded, then that might make it easier for her.

posted by grum@work at 11:01 PM on July 31

There's no rhyme or reason as Western sports culture would understand it, just someone said "Let's go get us some world dominance in that" and the program goes into gear.

Except that Australia's academy system was designed along similar, if less martial lines. And you can make an argument that a good chunk of the UK's lottery funding for sport was betting on talent in exchange for medals.

China was institutionally doping swimmers through the 1990s, as was revealed when a case of PEDs was found in a bag at a meet in Perth. Around the same time, outside the institutional framework, BALCO was doing its business. (The NY Daily News got Victor Conte on record this week, which leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The facilitators of doping seem always to find work.)

The main issue here, beyond the stereotypes, is that an effective anti-doping policy requires either regular competition with testing, or random out-of-competition testing, so that PEDs (and masking agents) used in training regimes can be detected. Out-of-competition testing takes place in China, but bureaucratic delays and the state apparatus could conceivably lead to tip-offs that testers are on their way.

The other issue, I think, is that Western countries regard their medal-winning swimmers as celebrities; Chinese swimmers are individually famous in their home country, but they're not going to be on the Today show with their gold medals.

posted by etagloh at 01:35 AM on August 01

Out-of-competition testing takes place in China, but bureaucratic delays and the state apparatus could conceivably lead to tip-offs that testers are on their way.

Well, it's not like the US athletics authorities ever covered up questionable test results for Carl Lewis, so we're totally in the clear only raising questions when Chinese athletes win, right?

posted by rodgerd at 05:50 AM on August 01

The other issue, I think, is that Western countries regard their medal-winning swimmers as celebrities; Chinese swimmers are individually famous in their home country, but they're not going to be on the Today show with their gold medals.

Not saying this snarkily, just genuinely confused. What's the difference?

posted by Etrigan at 08:12 AM on August 01

But Hugh, it does seem surprising that a teenager female would suddenly turn in a time faster than a male in his prime, doesn't it?

Definitely. If she never races like this again, I'd be suspicious. But if she continues to break her own records, and if she passes whatever tests are administered, it could just be a case of a very special athlete coming into form.

I won't hold my breath, mind you, but teenagers do grow quickly.

posted by Hugh Janus at 08:28 AM on August 01

When it comes to China, never underestimate the power of a country with well over a billion people and a government that fully supports their athletes. They have a huge desire to win on the world stage. Especially if that means unseating the USA as the world leader in a particular sport.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with their system they, have produced some incredible musical, athletic, and acrobatic prodigies. I have never seen such young people devote so much time and effort to achieve a level of success at such an early age. US swimmers, basketball players, gymnasts, better watch out. I think the Chinese really want to win and until proven guilty, I am just going to say wow pretty impressive performance.

posted by Atheist at 12:33 PM on August 01

Not saying this snarkily, just genuinely confused. What's the difference?

I mean that swimmers (and competitors in general) from the English-speaking world are identifiable as personalities -- they give interviews, have profiles and endorsement deals and biographies. From that perspective, the Chinese are "generic Chinese Olympian", and it's easier to think of them as cogs in an institutional machine rather than people. To some degree, they do subsume their personal success within that of the national team, but based on what I've heard from people living in China, not as much as is assumed in the anglosphere.

it's not like the US athletics authorities ever covered up questionable test results for Carl Lewis, so we're totally in the clear only raising questions when Chinese athletes win, right?

Yeah, that's why I mentioned BALCO, and why I'm ambivalent about a focus that embraces hoary stereotypes about China while dodging recent history elsewhere, especially in terms of the time it takes for evidence to appear.

posted by etagloh at 01:25 PM on August 01

Are you suggesting Michael Phelps' mom might be taking something?

posted by yerfatma at 01:48 PM on August 01

Michael Phelps' mom is taking a photograph of you right now.

posted by Hugh Janus at 03:47 PM on August 01

Then John Leonard pretty much plants doping in everyone's minds.

posted by jjzucal at 05:45 PM on August 01

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