As a Teenage Chinese Swimmer Strikes Double Gold, Doping Allegations Swirl

The big question is: Did China’s sensational double gold medalist dope?

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Toby Melville / Reuters

China's Ye Shiwen poses with her gold medal after winning the women's 200-m-individual-medley final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on July 31, 2012

Now the real uproar will begin. On July 28, Ye Shiwen, a 16-year-old Chinese swimmer, shattered the world record in the 400-m individual medley by more than one second, the equivalent of an eon in an event where victories are usually measured in the briefest of intervals. Her blazing time was five seconds faster than her personal best. Then, three days later, on Tuesday night, Ye claimed gold in the 200-m individual medley, with a time of 2 min. 07.57 sec., an Olympic record.

So, the big question is: Did China’s sensational double-gold medalist dope?

At the victory ceremony on July 31, the timid teenager looked more overwhelmed than overjoyed as China’s March of the Volunteers played in the Aquatics Centre. Perhaps the sheltered swimmer knew what was to come. Later that evening, at a packed press conference, Ye reiterated that she had never doped, barely cracking a smile even though she had won gold less than two hours earlier. Nearly all the questions during the 20-minute press conference danced around the drug question. “I think it’s unfair,” she said, after a series of brief answers to pointed questions. “I feel like it’s a prejudice [against China]. Other people from other countries have won multiple gold medals, but they are not questioned.”

(MORE: Doping Suspicions About Gold-Medal Swimmer Trigger Angry Response in China)

Ye has never failed a drug test, and Chinese supporters grumbled about the drug suspicions swirling around the young swimmer. “We never questioned Michael Phelps when he bagged eight gold medals in Beijing,” said Jiang Zhixue, a Chinese antidoping official, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. “I think it is not proper to single out Chinese swimmers once they produce good results.” Ye’s father, Ye Qingsong, was quoted by China’s Tencent website, defending his daughter. “I saw a lot of Western media expressing their doubts about her, but Western media have always been very arrogant,” he said. “They always doubt the Chinese people. The best answer is data, tests. The Chinese national swimming team has always been given ‘special’ care internationally. I remember sometimes they have to do six or seven tests. So I think as long as there is data and there are tests, we don’t need to say anything more.”

But China’s history is not inspiring when it comes to swimming and drugs. In the 1990s, the country’s swimmers came out of nowhere to break world records and grab golds. Just as predictably, the drug busts followed. In one particularly telling incident, Chinese swimmers captured 12 gold medals at the 1994 Asian Games. But a surprise drug test then caught seven of those Chinese swimmers. At the 1998 world championships, a Chinese swimmer was stopped at an Australian airport carrying vials of human growth hormone.

Past cheaters are held to a higher standard, as Ye’s father alluded. That’s fair. But there’s also no question that China has tried to clean up its act in the pool. Chinese swimmers have not been caught doping at a high-profile international competition in years. At the Beijing Olympics four years ago, the country’s swimmers passed all drug tests. Now that it’s a sporting powerhouse that captured the most gold medals of any nation at the Beijing Games, China must fear losing face by having any of its victories questioned. The antidoping campaign is so rigid in China that national-team athletes are forbidden to eat outside of official canteens. Why? Because Chinese meat is so tainted with additives like clenbuterol that athletes could test positive simply by chowing on stir-fried pork.

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A steady stream of Chinese athletes have gotten caught in domestically administered drug tests. Even though the central government seems committed to combating doping, it’s another story on the provincial level where local sports budgets depend on the performances of athletes during the hotly contested National Games. Each major domestic contest seems to bring another embarrassing drug bust; out-of-competition positives aren’t uncommon either. In March, another 16-year-old female swimmer, Li Zhesi, was busted for EPO, a blood-boosting agent. Li was part of a 4×100-m medley relay that won at the 2009 world championship and had been expected by some to compete in London.

Ye’s performance in London has been characterized in the West as a come-from-nowhere stunner. But that’s not accurate. At the Asian Games in 2010, she racked up the second fastest times of the year in the 200-m and 400-m individual medleys. In the world championships last year, Ye glided past the then world-record holder Ariana Kukors of the U.S., to claim first place in the 200-m individual medley.

She’s also at the age when the best swimmers commonly make huge breakthroughs. Ian Thorpe, for instance, also shaved five seconds off his personal best around the same age. Janet Evans, the American swimmer, was 17 years old at the 1988 Olympics when she won triple gold and broke a world record.

That didn’t stop U.S. coach John Leonard from casting doubts on Ye’s performance. But others rallied to her defense — or at least cautioned against pronouncing her guilty with no evidence. London 2012 organizer Sebastian Coe told ITV News that it would be “very unfair to judge an athlete by a sudden breakthrough.”

In 2002, China began pouring resources into its swimming program, through the high-profile Project 119, which targeted medals in Olympic sports in which China had yet to dominate. Those events included track and field, rowing, and swimming. Money was lavished on these disciplines. The nation’s thousands of state-sponsored sports academies focused their efforts on cultivating talent in disciplines beyond traditional Chinese mainstays, such as diving and table tennis. The effort began to pay off at the Beijing Games, when a nearly unknown 19-year-old Chinese swimmer named Liu Zige captured gold in the 200-m butterfly with a world-record-breaking performance. In 2011, China clocked six of the fastest results of the year in various swimming races.

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Then came the medal rush in London. The same night that Ye won her gold on Tuesday, the Chinese men captured bronze in the 4×200-m freestyle relay. Three nights before, Sun Yang became the first Chinese man to win gold in the pool, when he powered to a new Olympic record in the 400-m freestyle. He also won a silver in the 200-m freestyle on Monday.

Ye, who was picked for swimming when her kindergarten teacher noticed her large hands and feet, is part of this new generation of Project 119 swimmers. Her parents were happy to have her pursue the sport. They liked to go boating on the lake in Hangzhou, the pleasant eastern Chinese city where Ye grew up, and knowing how to swim would keep their daughter safe.

It’s possible that China’s swimmers could be amped up on some agent for which there is no test available yet. After all, antidoping efforts are often one — or 10 —  steps behind scientific advances. But if that’s the case, then it’s also conceivable that swimmers from other nations are drugging too. Doping is hardly the unique domain of Chinese athletes. The list of Western Olympians who eventually have been caught doping — Marion Jones, Michelle Smith, a brace of American cyclists, to name just a few — is long.

But here’s the difference: Western athletes make an individual choice to subject their bodies to the dangers of performance-enhancing agents. In sports systems like those of China or East Germany, the decision to dope is made by the state. Athletes sometimes have no idea that the supplements they thought were simply herbs or vitamins are illegal substances. Take the case of Zou Chunlan, a former weight-lifting national champion. During her years as a lifter in the 1980s and ’90s, Zou was given mysterious pills that, it turned out, flooded her system with male hormones. She grew a beard. Today, she is unable to bear children. She told Chinese media she had no idea what it was she was taking at the coaches’ behest. “Everything is for the gold medals,” she told TIME, of the Chinese sports system. “I think that’s still the same today.”

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And here’s one last anecdote that, in its very ambiguity, proves the difficulties the Chinese sports system faces in earning the world’s trust. In June, when I was reporting a story on China’s national weight-lifting team, I asked the head coach whom I should focus on as a future Olympian. Immediately, he suggested Tian Yuan, a 19-year-old lifter in the 48-kg weight class. The advice seemed sound. Tian had recently broken the world record by more than 5 kg. But I couldn’t help but notice that she looked different from all her teammates. While they — even the ones in the larger weight classes — looked feminine, with body curves and rounded faces, Tian had a cut jaw and a high hairline. Her hands, with their prominent knuckles and veins, looked like miniature versions of men’s hands. Most noticeable was her voice, a raspy timber that had she called me on the phone I would have mistaken for a man’s.

Tian never made it to the Olympics. The July morning when China’s Olympic weight-lifting roster was announced, her name was there. But the early evening brought a dramatic announcement. The world-record holder had been booted from the team. On Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, Tian released an anguished note: “I feel very shocked. I don’t know what the reason is … I passed all antidoping tests. I am perfectly fine. I don’t understand why I can’t take part in the Olympics. I feel very sad.” Shortly after the decision, national team coach Xu Jingfa said by telephone that the last-minute change was due to complicated provincial politics. The next morning, a national weight-lifting press official told TIME that Tian was injured and that was why she wasn’t going to London. But a later call to her coach resulted in contradictory information. Tian wasn’t in the least bit injured, he said.

I have no proof that Tian was doping. There are women who look more manly, like Caster Semenya of South Africa, who, after months out of competition because of a controversy over her sex, was cleared for the London Olympics. Chinese journalists have found childhood photographs of Tian, and she certainly looked more feminine then than she does now. Whatever the truth, the Chinese Internet public has speculated widely that drugs were at the root of Tian’s last-minute cut from the Olympic team.

In some ways, you could argue that the Chinese system prevailed, that if she was doping, the country’s sports officials were making sure she wouldn’t participate in London. But the other lesson to draw from Tian’s case is that opacity still cloaks Chinese sports. And until those shadows are cast away, people, unfairly or not, are going to ask questions. If 16-year-old swimmer Ye is clean, it’s tragic that her moment of victory has been fouled by the taint of drugs. But the very Chinese system that made this remarkable young swimmer also laid the ground for doping allegations to flourish. Let the debate rage on.

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