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Olympic Comment: Chinese whispers over Shiwen
IT was unquestionably the stand-out performance from the opening weekend of the Games. Chinese teenager Ye Shiwen did not just break Stephanie Rice's world record as she claimed gold in the 400m individual medley on Saturday evening, she obliterated it by more than a second.
She shaved a mammoth five seconds off her previous personal best, and produced a final 100m of freestyle that was utterly unprecedented in female swimming.
Her final 100m was just three hundredths of a second slower than Ryan Lochte, who had won the men's 400m IM earlier in the evening and is widely recognised as one of the greatest male swimmers of all time. Indeed, in the final 50m of the race, she beat Lochte by 0.17sec.
It was a performance that seemed too good to be true. The hope, as Chinese swimmers celebrate mounting success in the pool, is that it wasn't.
The Olympics is supposed to be about celebrating sporting excellence and revelling in feats that almost appear superhuman. Previous Games have featured plenty of jaw-dropping moments and perhaps Shiwen is merely the latest 16-year-old prodigy to burst to global prominence. Maybe she is so naturally talented that she will go on to dominate female swimming for many years to come.
Shiwen's stunning performance led some to question how an unknown could have beaten Lochte in the last 50m. That prompted Swimming World magazine to hit back: "Not minutes after Ye Shiwen captured the gold medal... accusations started to fly. What a bloody shame."
Unfortunately, China has form for this. In 1994, Chinese swimmers emerged from nowhere to win 12 gold medals at the World Swimming Championships amid widespread allegations of doping.
Later that year, seven Chinese swimmers tested positive for steroids at the Hiroshima Asian Games. They were suspended, and the squad was decimated to the extent that China only claimed one swimming gold at the 1996 Olympics.
Chinese athletics has been tainted by a similar scandal. In 1993, a group of previously unheralded Chinese females broke five world records in distance running at the National Games in Beijing.
Drug taking was widely suspected among the group, all of whom were trained by the same coach, Ma Junren, and it was telling that the athletes in question never managed to repeat their performances at events outside of China at which drug testing was independent.
None of which represents any kind of proof against Shiwen of course, and it is exceptionally sad, if perhaps understandable, that her display on Saturday has been queried as much as celebrated.
Perhaps the massive investment made by the Chinese government into sport has simply paid off. Maybe Shiwen, a swimmer who has only competed in a small number of international events because of her age, was this good all along and we just didn't know it.
As former world champion Mark Foster pointed out on the BBC, it is not unknown for teenagers to make a sudden leap forward as their body develops.
If that is the case, then it is regrettable that Shiwen is paying for all the doping offences in the past. The legacy of convicted drug cheats such as British sprinter Dwain Chambers and Kazakh cyclist Alexander Vinokourov, who won the men's road race on Saturday after previously serving a two-year ban, is that champions like Shiwen come under suspicion.
Let us hope she is clean. Sport always needs new heroes, and if she can repeat Saturday's display, Shiwen is set to become one of the all-time greats.
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