Danny Chang writes from the London Olympics: Ye Shiwen won gold in the 400 metres individual medley for China in such a startlingly fast record breaking time that there are plenty in the village here muttering about yet another Chinese drug podium star. I guess sour grapes have an odd odour.
American John Leonard, the very much respected executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, is quoted as saying that he wanted to be very careful about making allegations but that “every time we see something ‘unbelievable’, history shows us that it turns out later there was doping involved.” He also thought that the speed at which Ye Shiwen swam the final 100 metres to be “impossible.” These are powerful and dangerous insinuations.
So good for Lord Colin Moynihan, the British Olympic Association’s chairman, for speaking up for Ye Shiwen and for the testing regime, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The swimmer should be praised, says Moynihan, rather than have innuendo slung at her triumph.
There is no doubt that this Chinese athlete has an amazing talent. In China she is regarded as a sporting phenomenon. Her performance in London 2012 supports that reputation and let it be known that the lady herself dismisses any idea of doping. “My results come from hard work and training and I would never use any banned drugs. The Chinese people have clean hands.”
Well, not quite. There is a very well documented history of Chinese athletes, especially swimmers, using performance enhancing drugs. In the 1994 Rome world championships, the Chinese swam off with 12 of the 16 golds. Many coaches wondered how this could be. Many other athletes knew perfectly well how it was. Most of them had their prejudices if not their suspicions proved correct when just seven months later at the Asian Games in Hiroshima seven Chinese swimmers were found to have taken banned drugs.
The Chinese athletic authority said they had to make sure their people had what Ms Ye calls “clean hands”. It didn’t work.
Just before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 27 Chinese athletes (including four swimmers) were pulled out of the team. The word went out from Beijing: clean up the Chinese act especially as the International Olympic Committee was cleaning up its method of dope testing. Significantly there was just one Chinese swimming gold at Athens in 2004.
Certainly the IOC drug test and the WADA programme are comprehensive. In these events, the top four – gold, silver, bronze, and runner-up get tested. The results are kept for eight years under nowadays unexceptionable clinical conditions to avoid accusations from appealing athletes of contamination in the testing and storing process.
However there is one unspoken question floating in the village: Ye Shiwan says she would never use banned drugs. What if Chinese chemists have developed a substance that is as yet not banned but that is one with similar effects of a banned drug?
That is not such a fanciful notion and laying Ye Shiwan’s achievement aside for a moment, this concept opens an even wigglier can of worms: how can chemistry and technology make athletes stronger and faster to the extent that sponsors and advertisers will want them to excel beyond every one’s dream in order to create the perfect commercially successful games?
American scientists working in biomechanics at the University of Montana believe that theoretically a seven second men’s 100m is possible – that’s more than 2 seconds faster that Usain Bolt’s world record. At the base of this optimism is genetics. So not everyone is going to do it.
Does the same apply to Ye Shiwen’s sport? Almost. The biomeds at Montana are looking at the physique for a faster swimmer than she or the Olympic champion Michael Phelps has. They need to create a swimmer with fast contracting muscles (they respond quicker), long arms, short legs and very big flipper-like feet. The goal is someone who can swim at a max 3.8 metres per second. Work it out. That means the goal for a 50m record is between 13 and 14 seconds.
Of course we’re a very long way from say, an optimum 43mph sprinter – Bolt comes home at just under 28mph.
But interestingly, there’s research funding to be had for this sort of work. It obviously has great meaning for pure physical medicine but it has also enormous potential for its funders.
Sponsors and advertisers want records broken. They want to sponsor athletes who will take their sport to the very edge of what is possible. Why? Because the fastest wear Oggly Goggly shoes, trainers and vests. The fastest wear Rumple-Up watches and use Spend It Like Forever debit cards.
They figure that the ultimate attraction is a human freak. Ye Shiwan is clean. But the real fascination is that there may just be a substance that makes the ‘unbelievable’ as John Leonard calls it, utterly believable. The Romans felt the same thing about their pet gladiators. We have not come far have we?