Unease, anger as Chinese swimmer fights doping doubts
LONDON (Reuters) - Chinese swimming sensation Ye Shiwen should be basking in the glow of Olympic glory - aged just 16 she has a world record, a Games record and two gold medals.
Instead, she has been forced to fend off questions and insinuations of cheating in a doping row that has no solid basis in fact, yet threatens to overshadow the early stages of the Games and a thrilling few days in the pool.
Privately, her 396-strong team and the big Chinese media contingent at the Olympic Park in east London are furious.
Ye, they say, has been unfairly targeted by the media in a way that athletes from other countries have not.
Xu Qi, head of the Chinese swimming team, summed up the mood in the camp.
"Ye Shiwen has been seen as a genius since she was young, and her performance vindicates that," he told the state news agency Xinhua.
"If there are suspicions, then please lay them out using facts and data. Don't use your own suspicions to knock down others. This shows lack of respect for athletes and for Chinese swimming."
In fact, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) hinted on Tuesday that Ye had not tested positive for drugs.
She was tested after her Olympic gold and is most likely to have undergone further tests in the immediate build-up to the Games and over a longer period.
Anti-doping agencies have sought to beat cheating using target testing and intelligence gathering ahead of London 2012.
"We would only comment if we had any adverse finding," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said on Tuesday. "I am not commenting, so you can draw your own conclusions."
That may not be enough to quell conjecture, and Ye's second gold in the 200 meters individual medley on Tuesday evening may only add to her problems.
Doubts over Ye's display, and whether it was humanly possible without performance-enhancing drugs, surfaced after her stunning 400 individual medley display on Saturday which swiftly became the talk of the Olympic village.
She trailed American world champion Elizabeth Beisel after the penultimate breaststroke leg before a devastating finish over the final two freestyle lengths.
Ye covered the penultimate one in 29.75 seconds, faster than medal-laden Michael Phelps in the men's medley final, and the last in 28.93, quicker than Ryan Lochte did in winning the men's event.
She also became the first female swimmer to break a world record since the ban of hi-tech suits, taking more than a second off the previous benchmark.
"Interesting" and "insane" were two words used to describe the race by former Olympians quoted in the New York Times, although many coaches and athletes rallied behind Ye on Tuesday as the furor grew.
Question marks appeared in newspaper columns, as in the British Guardian's: "Ye Shiwen's world record Olympic swim: brilliant, or too good to be true?"
Television presenter Clare Balding, working for the British Games broadcaster the BBC, asked aloud how many questions would be asked, and media outlets picked up remarks John Leonard, executive director of the World 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."
He cited the example of Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, who won gold in the same event as Ye at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics but was banned from swimming for four years in 1998 for tampering with a drug test.
Ye, nicknamed the "young general" at home, has brushed aside doping suspicions.
"My results come from hard work and training and I would never use any banned drugs," she told reporters in London. "The Chinese people have clean hands."
The issue of doping in sport, and China's own patchy track record, are part of the problem.
China had a spate of cases in the 1990s, most embarrassingly in 1998 when a female swimmer and coach were disqualified from the Perth world championships after being caught with 13 vials of muscle-building human growth hormone at Sydney airport.
China's domination of women's swimming ended as quickly as it began.
Other athletes from other countries and sports have also been shamed, most famously Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson who won world record and Olympic gold in Seoul in 1988 but was disqualified days later when he failed a drugs test.
"Improvement in performance doesn't necessarily mean illegal action. Sport is all about pushing the limits," said Gregoire Millet, director of the Sport Science Institute at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
But he added: "We know that doping had been active in China - I stress had been. We don't know that now, but that means there's always going to be suspicion."
Jim Ferstle, a U.S. journalist who is an expert on the subject of doping, agreed.
"China's history of doping issues only increases the suspicion. Sadly that is the reality. We hope we're witnessing the emergence of a gifted athlete, but can't be sure."
He summed up the feeling of many journalists and sports fans who want to celebrate the unbridled thrill of sporting triumph and yet cannot shake off niggling doubts in the back of their minds.
Ye's case is more complicated and has made veteran Olympic reporters and officials uneasy.
Why, they ask, does the sporting media, and the world in general, embrace an athlete like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and his heroics in Beijing in 2008? What about Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France in June, the first Briton to do so?
There is nothing to suggest either has done anything wrong to win - and the same goes for Ye.
"If it was another country there'd be fewer questions asked," said French swimming coach Denis Auguin in London. "There's a bit of an injustice in that, even if the past shows us that there were some abnormal practices in China."
U.S. head women's coach Teri McKeever said part of the problem was people taking results out of context.
"Unfortunately ... some people just jump to conclusions when they see something they think was impossible," she said. "I don't know why society is like that.
"It's not like we haven't seen her before, she's won a world championship. We saw something that's never been done before, but we see that all the time as well," she added.
Ye, who turned 16 in March, was thrust into the spotlight as China's leading female swimmer just before the July 27-August 12 Games after world champion Li Zhesi tested positive in June and was banned from competing in London.
The quiet teenager from an ordinary background in Hangzhou only took up swimming seriously after a teacher noticed she had bigger hands and legs than other children of her age, and in 2008 she joined the national team.
Success is not new to her. Ye won the world championship for the 200 medley in Shanghai last year and was profiled by the ruling Communist Party's top newspaper the People's Daily.
But nothing could have prepared her for the backlash against her swimming success in London.
At home, ordinary Chinese are angry at the way she has been portrayed.
"When I heard this news, I was furious," 30-year-old sales manager Peng Wenjuan said in Beijing.
"I think that casting suspicion over our athletes before any official release of data is totally baseless, so I believe that Ye Shiwen's outcome was genuine."
(Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann, Kate Kelland, Alan Baldwin, Nick Mulvenney, Gene Cherry and Julian Linden in London and Jane Lee in Beijing, editing by Ed Osmond)
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