|Ye Shiwen set a world record with her 400 individual medley swim on Sunday. But was it too good to be true? (US Presswire)|
We are conditioned not to believe.
Many modern sports records aren't sacred anymore. They're protected benchmarks, lorded over by cynicism and skepticism and proof that any purity once associated with them has since been obliterated. So when a female swimmer posts a world record in the pool in front of billions watching around the globe, and does it swimming a final 50-meter leg faster than America's fastest swimmer (its fastest male swimmer); when the distance between her and second place looks like it was aided by an invisible underwater rotor, questions don't pop up. They immediately rocket miles above all our heads.
Let's be clear, though. We have no proof now that Ye Shiwen, the Chinese swimmer who swam the 400-meter individual medley in 4:28.43 Sunday, cheated. Naturally, she says she did not. Says her country and team are fastidious in anti-doping policies and philosophies. She says she is not like "girls from the past," referencing her nation's notorious problem with doping in the pool.
Here's a viewable graph of Ye's distance and times compared to her competitors in the race. Per The Telegraph.
Chinese swimmers have a history with cheating in the pool that could rival Major League Baseball's drug problem of the past 20 years. As recently as 2009, the country had five swimmers banned for performance-enhancing substances. So, as it is with any player who would hit 60 dingers in contemporary baseball season, Ye will be hesitantly acknowledged as some sort of super swimmer, all the while the skeptics looking for how heavy and how soon will be the shoe that drops.
She's 16 and she's this good? Well, Ye -- who won the 200 IM at the 2011 World Championships -- was seven seconds improved from her World Championships 400 IM swim last year. That's flat out nuts, if not unprecedented. What, did she hit her latest stage of puberty in the middle of that race on Sunday? It seems everyone's sitting around and waiting for the news that they believe has to be coming. Because no swimmer puts up a time like this so surprisingly without later being exposed as a drug-fueled cheat.
John Leonard, who runs the World Swimming Coaches Association and the USA Swimming Coaches Association, told The Guardian he thought Ye's performance was "disturbing." Leonard saw something similar happen in the 400 female IM 16 years ago, when Irish swimmer Michelle Smith put up a world record.
Then they found the drugs in her blood. The record was wiped out. Will this one cease to exist by next week, next month, next year? It's that 58.68 time that's flabbergasting everybody. That's the split for Ye's final quarter of the IM, the freestyle section. She would've beaten Ryan Lochte in a race, and she would've done it measured against Lochte's second-best-in-the-history-of-the-world 400 IM in men's Olympic swimming, which was held last Saturday.
Ye's result has made cause for a lot of uncomfortable but needed conversation. Left to his devices, the IOC chairman had to sit on a dais and do what he's paid to do: not doubt his Olympic gold medal-winner because the science gives him no wiggle room at the moment to do so.
While others murmured amongst themselves to Ye's time, Leonard didn't hold back. His words carry big weight in the sport, and to him, there is something amiss. Here's what he told The Guardian:
"We want to be very careful about calling it doping," Leonard said. "The one thing I will say is that 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 there was doping involved. That last 100m was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers, for people who have been around a while. It was reminiscent of 400m individual medley by a young Irish woman in Atlanta." ...
Ye was more than seven seconds faster in the Olympic 400m IM final than she had been in the World Championship equivalent last July. Leonard said that improvement was possible, but very hard to do. "But the final 100m was impossible. Flat out. If all her split times had been faster I don't think anybody would be calling it into question, because she is a good swimmer. But to swim three other splits at the rate that she did, which was quite ordinary for elite competition, and then unleash a historic anomaly, it is just not right."
At this point, Ye's swim is even confounding sports scientists. If the swim was entirely pure, entirely clean, it was also entirely pioneering. Unprecedented. She is the new evolution. And the sports world isn't ready for that. We're way too (rightfully, given all the doping scandals) jaded to accept what we saw happen at the London Aquatics Center on Sunday.
Drugs or not, the world is clearly not prepared to see a female outperform a male in the pool or on a track or field. The gender performance gap will never entirely close in sports competition, but can it have exceptions when it comes to speed, power and endurance? That's the next watershed moment, and we might've just seen it, right there in the water.
Head-to-head, there's a reason why women and men race for different medals in the same events. Ye's overall time and final 100 meters simply does not compute for us yet. Coaches in the swim game with decades of experience are openly doubting Ye, and I'm not sure what she can do in the immediate future to reverse those sentiments.
To clear her name, Ye will have to do more than beat a drug test. She'll have to repeat this performance -- and beat the tests again. Then will probably have to do it again, and swim through even more hoops. There is no such thing as a new normal in new-world sports. All we have is the proof our eyes see and the questions that block the view.