Commentary

Healthy skepticism, or cynicism?

What does suspicion of Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen say about us as fans?

Originally Published: July 31, 2012
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

LONDON -- The biggest international story from the Aquatics Centre this week has had nothing to do with Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte or the arrival of Missy Franklin as the next young American star. Instead, it's centered on 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, who has shocked the swimming world with her blistering times and record-setting performances.

Ye won gold and broke the world record in the 400-meter individual medley and will look for a repeat performance tonight in the final of the 200 IM. She is the top seed in that race, and her semifinal time was more than a second-and-a-half faster than the competition and the third-fastest time in history.

Her skyrocketing success has brought suspicion -- fairly or unfairly -- that her performance is in some way chemically enhanced. It has made a Chinese teenager a lightning rod for controversy and has prompted the question of exactly where we are as sports fans today. When we see something our eyes don't believe, have we reached a point where we are immediately skeptical? Are we too jaded or too experienced? Have we been burned so many times that we have lost our ability to believe? Is skepticism a healthy thing?

[+] EnlargeShiwen
Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY SportsAfter an amazing performance by Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, skeptics immediately raised the issue of doping. Is that fair?

"Should a sudden rise in performance or a surprise win be primarily suspected for being a cheat, sport is in danger for sure," said professor Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the IOC's medical commission. "It partially ruins the charm of competitive sport if a surprise win is surrounded by suspicion and question marks."

On a train into Olympic Park this morning, I sat next to a man who identified himself as a coach in the British Swimming Coaches Association. He looked at my media credential and asked was whether I was going to find John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association. It was Leonard who told The Guardian on Monday that he found Ye's performance "disturbing."

Leonard singled out East German swimmers, who were discovered to have used a performance-enhancing drug program for decades. He mentioned Ireland's Michelle Smith, who won three gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games under a cloud of suspicion and, 12 years later, received a four-year suspension after tampering with a urine sample.

"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 that there was doping involved," Leonard said.

During our chat along our journey to Olympic Park, the coach found the accusations about Ye troubling.

"It's just not fair to run around accusing people of cheating," he said. "Let me ask you this: If it was an American, would people be saying the same thing?"

It's an interesting point. When Phelps exploded on the scene 12 years ago, there were no whispers. Same for Franklin this week or Janet Evans in 1988.

It's not stunning that Ye outswam her competition. She won the 200 IM at last year's World Championships in Shanghai. The eye-opening part is how she has done it. The final leg of her 400 IM was faster than Lochte's. Skeptics insist there is no way a 16-year-old girl can outswim a 27-year-old Olympic champion who has spent four years flipping tires and pulling chains.

Ye defended herself Monday, saying, "There's absolutely no problem with the doping. The Chinese team has always had a firm policy about anti-doping."

Nearly every swimmer who has come through the interview area this week has been asked for an opinion on Ye. Lochte joked that he was glad she's a woman. Phelps acknowledged that he and his U.S. teammates were "pretty shocked." Fellow American Caitlin Leverenz, who will compete against Ye in the 200 IM final, tried to take the high road -- sort of.

"My job is to go out there and do my job," Leverenz said. "It's not my job to finger-point. It's FINA's job to deal with that. The Chinese have had a history of doping, so it's not crazy to point the finger. But it's not my job."

Fifty- and 100-meter freestyle record holder Cesar Cielo, who received a warning last year from the Brazilian Aquatic Sports Confederation after testing positive for a diuretic, defended Ye.

"I think this speculation is from those who are mad at her," Cielo said.

Asked whether Ye's success was doping or talent, Cielo didn't flinch, saying, "Absolutely it's talent. She's talented."

At a news conference Tuesday morning, British Olympic Association chairman Lord Moynihan tried to diffuse the situation.

"That is the end of the story, and let us recognize that there is an extraordinary swimmer out there," Moynihan said.

But over the course of the last two decades, our eyes have taught us that we can't always believe what we see. Alex Rodriguez. Marion Jones. The list doesn't end. In many ways, it's guilty until proven innocent.

It's Ljungqvist's job to help determine what we should and shouldn't believe. He said Monday that the IOC will test more than 5,000 samples during the London Games. The blood and urine of the top five finishers in every event will be tested, as will that of competitors when intelligence suggests they may be cheating. At minimum, Ye has been tested once after winning gold in the 400 IM. She'll probably undergo another test after the 200 IM on Tuesday night.

Asked if Ye's test Saturday had come back positive, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said, "We would only comment if we had any adverse finding. I am not commenting, so you can draw your own conclusions."

The problem is that plenty of people already have.