With the London Olympics underway, the first doping scandal of the games seems to have hit and it involves 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen. Ye won a gold on Saturday after making record time in the 400 meter medley, beating the times of gold medalist men’s swimmers Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps. American swim coach John Leonard stopped short of accusing Ye of using banned performance-enhancing substances but said her win was “disturbing.” From the Guardian:
The American John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, said the 16-year-old’s performance was “suspicious” and said it brought back “a lot of awful memories” of the Irish swimmer Michelle Smith’s race in the same event at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Smith, now Michelle de Bruin, was banned for four years in 1998 after testing positive for an anabolic steroid.
Ye stunned world swimming on Saturday by winning gold in the 400m individual medley in a world-record time. It was her final 100m of freestyle, in which she recorded a split time of 58.68sec, that aroused Leonard’s suspicion. Over the last 50m she was quicker than the American Ryan Lochte, who won the men’s 400m individual medley in the second-fastest time in history .
“We want to be very careful about calling it doping,” said Leonard, who is also the executive director of the USA Swimming Coaches Association.
“The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, ‘unbelievable’, history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved. That last 100m was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers, for people who have been around a while. It was reminiscent of the 400m individual medley by a young Irish woman in Atlanta.”
Yet others defended Ye and disagreed that her performance was suspicious, including Australian coach Ken Wood who has worked in China since 2008. From the New Zealand Herald:
“In the 1990s, the reputation of Chinese swimming wasn’t good. There were a lot of doping problems. But it really is very different now. A lot of attention is paid to training. And despite breaking the world record, Ye Shiwen didn’t come out of nowhere. Her results have steadily been improving,” he said. “So I think it is down to training, not other methods.”
The National Post reports on the response from Arne Ljungqvist, the International Olympic Committee medical chief:
“I say no,” Arne Ljungqvist told reporters when asked whether her dazzling swim had raised suspicions of doping. “I have personally no reason other than to applaud until I have further facts.”
“Should a sudden raise in performance or a win be primarily suspect of being a cheat then sport is in danger because this ruins the charm of sport,” said Ljungqvist, who has 40 years experience in anti-doping.
Ye, already nicknamed the “young general” back home after shaving an amazing five seconds off her personal best in her gold medal race, can win another medal after posting the fastest qualifying time in the preliminaries of the women’s 200 metres individual medley on Monday.
“My results come from hard work and training and I would never used any banned drugs. The Chinese people have clean hands,” she told reporters.
But a former Chinese Olympic doctor tells a different story in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, accusing China of having run “a state-sponsored doping regime” in previous years:
Steroids and human growth hormones were officially treated as part of ”scientific training” as China emerged as a sporting power through the 1980s and into the 1990s, she says.
Athletes often did not know what they were being injected with and medical staff who refused to participate were marginalised, she says.
”It was rampant in the 1980s,” Xue Yinxian told Fairfax, in her home in Beijing’s eastern suburbs. ”One had to accept it.”
The testimony of Dr Xue, whose elite roles included chief medical supervisor for the Chinese gymnastic team as it vied with the former Soviet Union for gold medals in the 1980s, will not surprise many veterans of Olympic sports.
Yet there is sometimes another reason Chinese athletes test positive for performance-enhancing drugs: contaminated food. AFP reported earlier that Chinese Olympians have been on a strict meat free diet in order to avoid the additive clenbuterol, a substance banned under anti-doping rules but often found in Chinese meat:
At least 196 competitors under China’s National Aquatics Centre, which governs swimming, diving and other water sports, have been off meat for the past 40 days, the report said. The London Games are 100 days away.
China’s food production industry is notorious for frequent scandals involving producers who illegally or excessively use various additives in the raising of livestock.
Authorities are particularly concerned that athletes could unwittingly consume clenbuterol, which is banned for food production in China but has been found in contaminated pork.
Clenbuterol can speed up muscle-building and fat-burning to produce leaner meat but has also been used by athletes as a performance-enhancer. It is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
With China currently in the lead of the gold medal count, the Globe and Mail takes a look at the system under which Chinese athletes are identified and trained to reach Olympic glory.