From its swim star Ye Shiwen to its badminton players, China found itself facing scrutiny and controversy—a sign of its continuing rise
This is an article from the Aug. 13, 2012 issue
DIRTY OR NOT, here she came. No Olympic moment is uglier than the press conference after a drug rumor gains traction, and now, into a packed room of reporters, stepped 16-year-old Ye Shiwen. The three days since the Chinese swimmer's spectacular finish in the women's 400-meter individual medley on July 28 had been marred by American accusation and Chinese rage, and she had just set an Olympic record in the 200 IM to win her second gold. But Ye wasn't smiling. The picture of contentment after her victory in the 400, she seemed much older now.
The first question mentioned "the speculation" and whether it was "unfair," and the second danced a bit before settling on how she handles such "criticism," but at last a reporter got to the point and asked if she had ever used banned performance-enhancing substances. "Absolutely not," Ye said, staring. Someone else asked if she agreed with the theory of China's antidoping chief, Jiang Zhixue, that critics were "biased" against Chinese athletes at the 2012 London Games.
"I feel the same. They are biased," Ye said. "Because other countries, other swimmers, have won multiple gold and no one has said anything. How come people would criticize me?"
So went China's herky-jerk march to Olympic dominance last week: one step victorious, the next aggrieved. China led the U.S. in overall medals 64--63 through Monday, but quantity meant less than quality; a week after becoming the first Chinese male to win an individual swimming gold medal, in the 400 freestyle, 20-year-old Sun Yang earned his second last Saturday, winning the 1,500 free in 14:31.02 to shatter his own world record by 3.12 seconds. And in between those happy bookends the Chinese delegation bristled as much with defensiveness as it did with pride.
"Are we the target?" asked Yao Ming, China's icon and now a CCTV basketball commentator. "Good question."
His country has been taking hits since July, when U.S. politicians knee-jerked a few kicks at Team USA for sporting Chinese-made apparel in the opening ceremony. That was the cheapest of shots; there's scarcely a congressman's closet that doesn't harbor imported garb, and the days have long passed when Made in China automatically meant suspect quality.
Once the Chinese reached London, however, their sports machine seemed to jam as often as it hummed. On Aug. 1 world champion women's badminton players Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang were jeered and disqualified—along with pairs from South Korea and Indonesia—for making near-comical efforts to throw matches to gain a more favorable draw in the next round. Last Thursday, Chinese track cyclists Gong Jinjie and Guo Shuang broke the world record twice in the team sprint yet lost the gold when officials said they had left too soon on a changeover.
When the 6'6" Sun apparently jumped the gun in the 1,500 after a stray word from the P.A. announcer, another odd disaster seemed at hand. Instead he was allowed to remount, then set a furious pace and, with his rivals trailing by a quarter of a pool length, finished like Secretariat tearing down the Belmont stretch. "At that moment I was so scared. It was all blank before my eyes," Sun said of his seeming false start. "But the last 50 meters I knew that I would break the record. I knew I still had a reserve. I did not push my body to its limits."
That's scary talk for Sun's future competitors, but Ye's 400 IM performance was even more impressive. With a time of 4:28.43 she crushed the world record by 1.02, beating her previous best—set on Oct. 21, 2011, in Guangzhou, China—by 5.23 seconds. And her freestyle speed over the race's final 50 meters was faster than that of men's 400 IM gold medalist Ryan Lochte. "The splits are off the charts," said 1992 U.S. bronze medalist Summer Sanders. "As a 400 IMer? I dream of having a freestyle like that."
TWO DAYS after Ye's stunning performance John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, publicly speculated that the race was too good to be true, calling Ye's improvement "unbelievable" and "disturbing" and suggesting that her final leg was reminiscent of performances by East German cheaters. U.S. Olympic officials raced to paint Leonard, who is not a member of their staff, as a loose cannon—though one long devoted to keeping the sport clean. And it's not as if he doesn't have ammo. Five Chinese swimmers were banned in 2009 after testing positive for clenbuterol at the '08 junior worlds, and in June, China suspended female swimmer Li Zhesi, part of a world-record-setting 400 medley relay in 2009, for using EPO, a blood-boosting drug. (Three U.S. swimmers have tested positive for banned substances since 2008.)
Mary T. Meagher, one of the greatest swimmers in U.S. history, watched Ye's 400 IM at her home outside Atlanta and was instantly suspicious. "It's really hard to swallow that she went faster than Ryan Lochte in that last 50. I don't know how she did," the 47-year-old Meagher said. "I don't want to be cynical, but my last Olympics, in 1988, was when the Chinese were all doped and sounding just like the East German women in the locker room; they all sounded like men. That left a bad taste in my mouth."
But the next morning Meagher had a tempering thought: What about me? A massive jump in time is not rare for young swimmers, and between 13 and 14 Meagher improved by 10 seconds in the 200 butterfly. At 16, like Ye, she astonished the swim world by breaking her world 100-fly record by more than a second. "I can still remember what it's like to swim almost a perfect race and feel like I was still getting faster at the end just as she did," Meagher said.
Ye has never tested positive, and both she and Sun have spent extended periods training with renowned Australian coach Denis Cotterell, who last week told a TV station in his country that he was "100 percent certain" that Ye was clean. The argument for her innocence received another boost last Friday, when 15-year-old American Katie Ledecky shaved five seconds off her personal best—for a total of 11 seconds cut in the last month—to win the 800 free in the second-fastest time ever (8:14.63). Yet that performance inspired just one doping question, five fewer than at Ye's press conference.
"It's totally false," Ledecky said of any suspicion about her time. "I just put in a lot of hard work this year—that's all I've been doing—just progressively setting with my coach short-term goals and long-term goals, taking time off progressively."
Leonard's cellphone mailbox was full as of Monday. He still hadn't weighed in on Ledecky, but you can be sure the members of China's delegation are waiting. In the meantime they'll tell you that Ye and Sun are merely the latest results of Project 119, a decade-long plan to cultivate athletes in sports in which China has not traditionally done well. They'll also tell you that it's no coincidence that the U.S. lashed out about China's underage gymnasts in 2008 and its star female swimmer in London. Gymnastics and swimming are marquee Olympic sports for the U.S., unlike table tennis and many other Chinese strengths.
"Big countries like China and the United States, both have national pride," Yao said. "It's hard to face losing, particularly in sports where [you've been] dominant for a long time and there's a guy who sticks out and says, 'Hey! You're an old man!' It's hard to take that."
China's populace was less understanding; Yao's broadcast partner, Yu Jia, said that a Chinese TV personality had publicized Leonard's e-mail address and "a billion people" had bombarded it with complaints. Yao wasn't pleased either. "[Ye is] only 16 and a very simple girl who just came out and dreamed about swimming and competing in the Olympics," he said. "To put all the stress on her is unfair. One question? I can handle that. But more questions, and after she passed the drug tests? That's something we have to fight against."
Ye herself took a swing. In her farewell tweet to London she wrote, "Many thanks for everyone's support! Including the doubts from the Western media!"
Sun didn't bother with sarcasm. All the hits China's Olympians had taken had burrowed under his skin. "How would you feel?" he asked.
When he touched the wall at the end of the 1,500, it all emerged: fatigue, relief, fear and anger. Eight times Sun pounded the water with his fists, screaming, looking like a brat in a bath. Then his eyes filled, and he began to sob and—just like that—he became the face of a nation.
"Many people think China has so many gold medals because of doping," Sun said afterward. "I can tell you: It's because of hard work and training. Chinese are not weaker than Americans." The Chinese reporters applauded then, and what was once a polite, respectful medal race entered a feisty new stage. The next great Olympic rivalry? It is so on.
Will China beat the U.S. in the race for the most medals? Check out the up-to-the-minute medal tracker at SI.com/olympics