A giant headline took up the bulk of the front page in Tuesday’s Daily Mail, Great Britain’s second-largest newspaper, and proclaimed that the recent whispers of the swimming world were now out in the open:
“US ATTACKS CHINA OVER DRUGS ROW SUPERGIRL SWIMMER.”
John Leonard — who is the American head of the World Swimming Coaches Association but is not, as USA Swimming quickly pointed out, a member of the US Olympic delegation — called the world-record performance in the 400-meter individual medley by 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen “unbelievable” and “disturbing.” “Any time someone has looked like superwoman in the history of our sport, they have later been found guilty of doping,” Leonard said.
Leonard was only giving voice to the doubts of many. It was based on circumstantial evidence that the Chinese swimmer had achieved the impossible, and the assumption that achieving the impossible often requires an advanced degree either in chemistry or genetic manipulation. After she won a second gold Tuesday night with an Olympic-record swim in the 200-meter individual medley, the whispers became shouts. A half-dozen questions at Ye’s 13-minute news conference were about drug suspicions.
Consider: In the 400 individual medley, she swam the final 50 meters faster than the male gold medalist in the same event, Ryan Lochte. She beat her nearest competitor by 3-1/2 lengths, and she beat her personal pre-Olympic best by more than 5 seconds. Her vast improvement over last year’s World Championships, when Ye had only placed fifth, made even the least cynical souls a bit incredulous.
“I said all I am going to say yesterday,” Leonard told FOXSports.com on Tuesday. “It’s my opinion, shared by most who know the sport well. It’s one questionable item in a great swim meet. Over the next eight years of available testing we will see what we see. I hope for the good of the sport and the girl involved that I am wrong.”
The rebuttals came hard and swift.
USA Swimming sent out a statement distancing the organization from Leonard. An International Olympic Committee spokesman noted Ye passed her drug test after the swim and called it “very sad” if we cast doubt on such stunning athletic performances. The chairman of the British Olympic Association proclaimed her clean.
And Ye herself said Tuesday, “Of course I think this is a little bit unfair for me. However, I was not affected by that. . . . They (the people spreading rumors) are biased. Other countries have won multiple golds, and nobody said anything. Why do people criticize me for winning multiple golds?”
Yet Leonard’s words carried a ring of truth that conveyed the whispered suspicions of the world, and implied mistrust of the Chinese, and dug at those difficult questions that come when a human being does something we all assumed was out of reach.
What does it mean when an all-time athletic achievement is tainted by the smog of impossibility? What does it say about our world today that our first reaction to out-of-nowhere greatness is disbelief? How do we feel about an athlete who passes a drug test — such as a Barry Bonds or a Lance Armstrong or a Dara Torres — but not the smell test?
Or what if this hard-working, sweet-sounding 16-year-old swimmer, who told Chinese media she has been eating McDonald’s since she arrived at the Olympics because British food is so awful, is as clean as a whistle, and we’re ruining her moment in the sun with unfounded drug innuendos?
“The fog of taint isn’t over the event — the fog of taint is over any paradigm-shifting performance,” said US swim team assistant coach Dave Marsh, carefully wading into dicey diplomatic and Olympic waters. “One of the things about paradigm-shifting events is you’re opening new thoughts of what is possible for human beings. Our God-given potential is way beyond what we do right now. You have to say all of this is possible.”
After morning heats at the Aquatics Center on Tuesday, the doping doubts surrounding Ye had taken over the news cycle.
We want our Olympic coaches and our Olympic athletes — role models all — to take a firm stance on one side or the other.
We want them to say one of two things: “This 16-year-old has got to be a cheater.” Or, “Shame on you for questioning this 16-year-old’s greatness.” We want black or white.
The thing is, with the imperfect system of checking for doping, where testing always lags behind the latest in cheating technology, it’s all gray.
“I’m not going to broach that, guys,” US head swim coach Gregg Troy said. “I’m here to swim fast. I’m not here to worry about what everyone else is doing and fight any evils in the world. Let’s move to something else. You want to talk about swimming?”
The thing is, the doping question is one of the most salient questions in swimming today.
“I honestly, I don’t know,” stammered Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’ coach. “I don’t think that 4:28 is an impossible time in the 400 IM. I think it’s a perfectly logical time for somebody to go. I think the girl has good technique. She had an amazing last 100. People do amazing things sometimes. I am one who is always sort of reticent to jump on (accusing someone of cheating). But I understand why John is.”
The thing is, we want to explain before we celebrate.
“Anything you can’t explain you’ll accuse,” said Markus Rogan, an Austrian swimmer. “What if she just trained better?”
The thing is, there’s no piece of paper saying that, yes, that 16-year-old Chinese swimmer with the huge smile and the gold medal failed a drug test.
“I Skyped my daughter — and she’s a swimmer — after the race,” said Marsh, the US assistant coach. “She said, ‘Dad, I don’t understand how that girl can come home faster than Lochte. Can you explain that to me, Dad?’ And I said, ‘As a swimming coach, no, I can’t explain it.’
"So I didn’t try to, and I’m not going to try to explain it to you. I have to spin it around in my mind. My job as a coach is to find out how that happened, because I have to train my people more like that, if there’s some training thing they’re doing to create that performance.”
And, so, after two of the most impressive performances of these Olympics, we’re left to wonder about the reality of it all.
USA Swimming preferred the controversy just disappear. When Caitlin Leverenz, the bronze medalist, was asked a question about PEDs immediately after the event, a USA swimming handler stepped in: “We’re going to stick to Caitlin’s swim,” team rep Matt Whewell interrupted. “I’m not going to let her (answer).”
Ye, with her baby face and bowl haircut, seemed to shrug it off. She was surrounded by Chinese reporters who saw it as an injustice that rumors would surround their phenom but have never surrounded Phelps.
"I don’t feel sad,” Ye said through a translator. “I feel peace. But it also encouraged me to prove myself.”
She proved herself in the pool again Tuesday. But the problem is, now that rumors and whispers have become shouts and suspicions, it’ll be even more difficult to prove herself in the eyes of the public.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at email@example.com.