Sensational swim does not a drugs cheat make

PHIL LUTTON
Last updated 12:00 31/07/2012
Ye Shiwen
Getty Images
RECORD BREAKER: 16-year-old Ye Shiwen smashed the 400m individual medley.

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Before you pass judgement on Ye Shiwen, take a breath. Ingest some context. The 16-year-old Chinese phenom has astounded and confounded in the London pool but gold plus (potential) gold doesn't neccesarily add up to a drug cheat.

Almost the second after she touched first in the women's 400m IM in a world record time of 4.28.43, the Chinese whispers spread like Black Plague around the Olympic Aquatic Centre.

Stephanie Rice's 4:29.45 had been erased but it was the manner of the win, rather than just the raw numbers, that had observers rubbing their eyes in stark disbelief. Then it was the raw numbers.

BBC presenter Clare Balding wasted little time as the swimmers climbed out of the pool, asking co-presenter and former top-level swimmer Mark Foster: "How many questions will there be over somebody who can swim so much faster than she has ever swum before?"

She has been castigated by some for the line of investigation, while others praised her for simply asking what everyone else was thinking.

Ye started the final leg of the race well behind American Elizabeth Beisel. By the turn in the 50m freestyle, Ye had taken the lead and by the end, had streeted her like a greyhound bounding after a fox terrier.

When Beisel took off her goggles, she looked like a fighter waking up from a slumber after being caught with a sucker-punch. Where the hell did that come from?

The reason seemed obvious to some, perhaps even a few of the other swimmers scanning the venue with raised eyebrows.

The immense improvement in times, the supreme power and the complete domination of an elite field could lead to only one conclusion, that being that the Chinese were up to their old tricks. The fact a former squad-mate in China, Li Zhesi, tested positive for EPO in March didn't aid Ye's cause.

We're all best served to take a step back at this point. Tarring Ye with the doping brush by association isn't even close to fair.

If this was an Australian athlete, we'd be mortified by the mere suggestion and celebrating the athletic vigour of our bronzed youth. It wasn't an insinuation Rice had to deal with when she clocked her world record in 2008, which was at the time an absurdly fast result.

Earlier that year, Rice shaved a startling six seconds off her personal best time to hit 4.31.46 at the Australian trials.

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American Katie Hoff reclaimed the mark a few months later before Rice countered at the Beijing Games, reducing it to below 4.30 for the first time. In contrast, people seized the fact Ye reduced her PB by five seconds to claim the new mark of 4.28.43 as clear reason for suspicion.

The sexiest line has been Ye's apples-to-apples comparison with American men's star Ryan Lochte, who humbled Michael Phelps in his gold-medal 400 IM swim on the first night of competition. The Chinese teen clocked 28.93 for her final 50m freestyle leg, compared to 29.10 for the 27-year-old Lochte.

It was a barnstormer of a swim. Headlines like: 'Faster than Lochte' flashed around the world and suddenly, a 16-year-old girl was quicker than a macho, full-grown US superman. It's juicy and accurate, to a point. But surgically removing one stat from a 400m swimming race and seizing upon it has warped perceptions and conclusion.

That freestyle leg was dazzling but Ye isn't faster than Lochte. It's not even close. Lochte's winning time in the men's 400m IM was 4.05.18, compared to Ye's 4.28.43. That's a difference of 23.25 seconds. And Lochte's lead-off relay sprint for the US men's team was 47.89, a number to which Ye couldn't get close despite being a gun freestyler.

The manner in which the races were swum adds another layer. Lochte had the race in hand by the time he turned on the freestyle leg. His other three strokes were good enough to give him a gold-medal lead and there was no clear and present danger ranging up on either side.

Ye had to hit the burners to motor past Beisel. She turned more than a body length behind and had to push with everything she had to catch the American. By the time she did that, it must have been clear a world record was within reach and she drove it home with Black Caviar authority. And in any case, four other male swimmers did beat Ye's freestyle split.

To the wider sporting world, Ye is only now becoming a notable name. Yet to swimming diehards, she has been one of the rising stars for some years, even if her surge of form in London has caught most people by surprise. Beisel and Rice had been the favourites for gold.

Ye won the 200m IM at the Asian Games in 2010 (2.09.37) and the 400m IM (4.33.79), all at age 14. At the time, she was listed at 160cm tall. Now, the official Olympic site lists her 12 cm loftier at 172cm. That sort of difference in height, length of stroke and size of hand leads to warp-speed improvement.

Ye was hand-picked for the Chinese swimming program because of her hands. Her finger-painting brush strokes at kindergarten must have been an inch wide. Whatever it was, her teacher noticed she had hands like buckets and she was soon using them to paddle up and down the pool.

If America - a nation of 300 million - can produced a Michael Phelps and Australia an Ian Thorpe, is it really so bizarre to think China - with a population of 1.3 billion and a state-run sporting program run with military precision - could haave found the female equivalent?

Ye swam in the heats of the 200 IM on Monday, clocking 2.08.90. It was the same time she set in the last World Championships, when she edged Australia's Alicia Coutts into gold. No red flags were raised on that occasion but one year later, Ye must compete under a cloud of doubt.

The world record for the 200m IM is 2.06.15, set at the infamous 2009 world titles by Ariana Kukors, wearing one of the now-outlawed techsuits. The way Ye is swimming, that record won't last long. And when it tumbles, expect the teenager to have to defend herself all over again rather than be celebrated as the next pin-up of the sport.

- FFX Aus

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