Ye ‘unbelievable,’ but in a good way

What Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen has accomplished so far at these Olympics — winning the 200-meter individual medley Tuesday in Olympic record time, a day after she won gold in the 400-meter IM by shaving five seconds off her personal best (and splitting her final 50 freestyle faster than Ryan Lochte, winner of the men’s race!) — really is “unbelievable.”

Of course, the veteran US swimming coach who said this meant unbelievable in the “she must be doping and cheating” way. I say this in the “wow, I cannot believe a female swimmer did that” kind of way.

I just do not have the stomach for accusing-intimating-whispering a 16-year-old girl is a steroid cheat simply because she swam crazy fast, and certainly not in the face of Tuesday’s news that Ye passed every drug test.

Let me ask this: If what Ye did was unbelievable, disturbing and demanding of an explanation, what then of a 41-year-old woman swimming 50 meters of freestyle faster than all but one person in the world four years ago? Or damn near qualifying for another Olympics at 45 — forty-freaking-five?

Yes, if Ye’s performance is to be looked at dubiously, so too must Dara Torres’ from Beijing. (For the record, Torres also never failed a drug test.) And if we want to say Torres is simply proof of what happens with hard work and dedication, we have to allow this as a possibility for the 16-year-old Ye.

And if this makes me unpopular back stateside, so be it. My job is honesty. And the truth is, too much of the steroids-doping allegations and coverage are provincial. Ye must be doping, while Torres is an inspiration. While in China, they are saying the reverse. Just like in much of France — and certainly by the French media — Lance Armstrong is viewed as the biggest doping cheat of all time, while until very recently, he was a sporting hero in America.

This is the problem with almost all steroid and doping talk. Too much is dependent on the lens through which one is looking. It is speculation; the business of righteous sports columnists based on what we think is possible and ignoring that everything is impossible until somebody does it.

Those moments used to amaze us. Now they provoke the doubt gene in all of us.

We have arrived at this point in sports, what I have in previous columns called the death of amazement, where we are all looking for the strings at the puppet show, the positive test, the proof it was never real at all. This phenomenon has, in many ways, destroyed what really makes sport and the Olympics in particular great — the ability of achievements and narratives and even athletes themselves to amaze and inspire us.

What would happen to Roger Bannister in this climate? My guess is exactly what happens to every athlete who achieves what we do not expect, a point made by US swimmer Natalie Coughlin when we talked at a race in Atlanta in November.

“With things like Twitter and Facebook and blogging, there are just so many cynical people out there throwing out their opinion, and sometimes it is accurate. I mean, unfortunately, people do try to sometimes cheat,” Coughlin said. “The people who have cheated have ruined it for everybody. That is just the way it is.”

She is right. The benefit of the doubt is dead, as Ye is quickly learning, crushed under the weight of Marion Jones’ denials and Armstrong’s plausible deniability and every athlete who was just a little too fast, a little too good, or who comes from a place we do not understand.

Because athletes cheat. The thing that looks too good to be true sometimes is. The athletes who pass every test all too often were found just to be ahead of testing, not clean at all.

This is why John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, is able to stand by every word of his statement (made after Ye’s 400 performance) — “Any time someone has looked like superwoman in the history of our sport, they have later been found guilty of doping” — even as Ye has passed every single drug test. And while Leonard is likely to be torched, he is merely saying aloud what many journalists, swimmers and officials have been whispering and intimating.

This is how I find myself in the very uncomfortable position of agreeing with the International Olympic Committee on this Ye issue, an uncomfortable place because the IOC tends to be 1) hypocritical, 2) on the wrong side of common sense and 3) a step behind dopers.

IOC spokesman Mark Adams is right when he says, “We need to get real here.”

Or at very least we need to get fair.

It cannot be amazing when an American swimmer does something unbelievable, and cheating when a Chinese one does.