Weather Updates

China’s Ye Shiwen raises doping suspicion with ‘impossible’ win

Updated: July 31, 2012 3:47PM

LONDON – On Monday, China’s Ye Shiwen won gold in the women’s 400-meter individual medley, breaking the world record by a second. She swam her final 50-meter freestyle in 28.93 seconds, which was faster than Ryan Lochte’s final 50 meters (29.1 seconds).

In case there’s any confusion here, Lochte is a man and the Olympic gold medalist in the 400 IM.

For those who believe a person is innocent until proven guilty, good for you. But for we skeptics, the people who have seen athletes try to beat the system over and over again, it’s impossible to look at Ye’s performance Monday and not suspect that something is very, very wrong.

John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, said Ye “looks like Superwoman. Any time someone has looked like Superwoman in the history of our sport, they have later been found guilty of doping.’’

He also called Ye’s final 100 meters “impossible.’’

Almost immediately, her Chinese supporters lashed out, saying Ye had passed more than 100 drug tests. But that’s the Lance Armstrong defense, and there are plenty of people who don’t believe the seven-time Tour de France winner competed clean.

I was at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when Irish swimmer Michelle Smith blew away the field three times, winning gold in the 400-meter freestyle and the 200 and 400 IM.

Almost immediately, people associated with the sport said something didn’t smell right. American star Janet Evans questioned how someone could progress so quickly, especially someone who was 26, old by swimming standards. For years, Smith had been a middling swimmer on the international scene, and here she was dominating the competition. More importantly, she was dropping her times dramatically. Before 1996, her best time in the 400 IM was 4 minutes, 58.94. In Atlanta, she swam 4:39.18.

It was a chaotic scene after each of her races, with friends and family angrily defending her and Smith herself denying she had ever used performance-enhancing drugs.

Four years later, I was in Kells, County Kilkenny, Ireland, trying to track down Smith, who had been exposed as a drug cheat. After being unable to locate her again and again, FINA, swimming’s governing body, finally tested her and eventually banned her from competition for tampering with her urine sample. Three successive tests found a banned substance.

I never did talk with Smith, who wouldn’t answer her door or return phone messages. The question now is whether we have found someone to take her place.

There are differences in the two cases. Smith was 26, and her best swimming should have been behind her by the Atlanta Games. Ye is 16. But her record time Monday was five seconds faster than her previous best. She denied she had taken any drugs, saying her results came from “hard work and training.’’

The sad part of this sport and others is that we know athletes find new drugs to beat the testers. We also know that WADA keeps drug samples for eight years and can find previously undetected drugs as they come to light. Ye very well could be clean. Or we might learn years from now that she wasn’t. That’s swimming, where the water is always murky.

Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, defended Ye on Tuesday morning.

“She’s been through (the World Anti-Doping Agency’s) program, and she’s clean,’’ he said. “End of story. Ye Shiwen deserves recognition for her talent.’’

It is not the end of the story, of course. Ye is the favorite to win the 200 IM Tuesday night. Given swimming’s dirty history and China’s record of cheating, some of us will hold off on the cheering.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.