Beware Ye Who Enter Here

There’s been a lot of hyperbole and poor reporting about Ye Shiwen (BBC Radio 4’s Today programme got her event wrong this morning). Doping is obviously still a problem in swimming and the community needs to be vigilant about ‘anomalous’ results. However I don’t think Ye’s swim was anomalous, given her history and context. I think she’s being treated unfairly.

Ye’s world record of 4.28.43 has been flagged as ‘unbelievable’ due to a 5 second drop from her previous best, a 4.33.79 at the Asian Games in 2010. Now *that* was an astonishing time for a 14-year-old (even in front of a partisan crowd in Guangzhou), but no-one really questioned it at the time.

A quick comparison: at the Beijing Olympics, American Elizabeth Beisel was 15 years old and swam 4.34.24 for 4th place, another great time. Beisel was stuck at 4.34 until she dropped three seconds to win the world championships last year (aged 18). She then shaved off another half a second on Saturday for the silver medal behind Ye. Three and a half seconds versus five seconds. Ye’s five seconds just happened to nudge into a new world record, which has got everyone in a flap.

Let’s examine why Ye Shiwen might have suddenly dropped that big chunk of time:

1. Growing taller! Ye has always had huge hands and feet, plus a hyperextension of the ankle that gives her a great kick (just like Ian Thorpe). Teenagers do grow sometimes. Teenagers also tend to drop larger amounts of time as their limb co-ordination, stroke technique and mental toughness are still developing.

2. Biannual tapers for biennial big meets. People who don’t follow swimming closely are often shocked when a new swimmer or a world record comes ‘out of the blue’, unlike e.g. track and field where Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake can regularly hit under 10 seconds mid-season. Top-level swimmers need to taper, especially distance swimmers with a gruelling workload like Ye, and so personal bests usually only happen once or twice a year maximum. Also it’s rare that a 100% tapered field will be racing together and spurring each other on to great times, unless it’s the Olympics or the World Championships. Ye’s taper timing has been perfect.

3. At the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, Ye won the 200m IM with an amazing freestyle leg that obliterated the field, but paced the 400m poorly (way too fast on the backstroke) and didn’t have as much left in the tank, finishing two seconds off her best. The 400m IM is an incredibly difficult race to get right tactically, especially if you’re an inexperienced 15 year old with the pressure of the home crowd. Ye has learned from her mistakes and technically improved her breaststroke leg (1.19.40 in Shanghai, 1.18 flat in London). She also has had the confidence boost of being 200IM world champion.

4. An Olympic final brings out the best (and worst) in a lot of athletes across all sports. Superhuman speeds can result - remember Jason Lezak chasing down Alain Bernard in the 4x100 free in Beijing for an insane 46.06 split? Ye was chasing down Beisel on the final free leg and knew she had the kick to beat her. That’s where the extra seconds came from.

5. She’s on drugs. It’s possible.

What’s annoying me more is the meaningless comparison to Ryan Lochte’s freestyle split. Lochte had no-one to race against over the last few lengths, thanks to a blistering first 350m which was obviously MUCH faster than Ye. His freestyle splits from 2011 Worlds were 29.58 and 28.84. On Saturday they were 29.55 and 29.10. Dude was KNACKERED.

Some other meaningless comparisons:
Ye Shiwen, 400IM final split, London 2012: 28.93 (WR, five second PB)
Becky Adlington, 800 free final split, Beijing 2008: 29.66 (WR, five second PB albeit set in a LZR)

To overcome the embarrassment of the 1990s, Chinese have invested hugely in their youth development programme, importing foreign coaches and sending swimmers overseas to train. Their aim was to get medals in Beijing (which they succeeded at) but the legacy has continued over the subsequent 4-year-cycle. Instead of new faces popping up at every major meet, the Chinese team have several established stars with experience at major competitions - these guys have been passing drug tests for 4-5 years.

Unfortunately some people have very long memories. Mark Foster mentioned on the BBC commentary this morning that the Western coaches are quicker to point the finger at potential dopers now because they feel ashamed for staying quiet during the GDR era. Personally think the US head coach is just trying his best to protect his swimmers - the American favourites Beisel, Caitlin Leverenz and Ariana Kukors.

I really hope Ye isn’t doping. One of her teammates failed a drug test earlier this year, which means nothing in itself (it implies Ye passed hers, but historically China and other countries regularly offered up ‘sacrificial cows’ to make it appear that they were conducting regular tests).

Currently there is a ‘blood passport’ scheme being trialled, whereby a blood sample is taken and stored for 8 years so that any future improvements in testing can be applied to old results. We’ll have to wait and see, but I have a feeling that if Ye *is* on undetectable drugs then so are a lot of other people! Swimmers are just like gymnasts, stuffed to the gills with painkillers and legal supplements to ‘aid recovery’ (I remember Steph Rice tweeting a picture of her enormous medicine cabinet a few months ago). The rules are there to provide a level playing field but everyone is going to stretch those rules as much as possible, sadly sometimes that bit too far.

posted 1 year ago