A hundred years ago, a staple character in British and US fiction was the Chinese drugs trader who preyed on innocent young women, bending them to his control by limiting their access to narcotics. It was a remarkably useful myth as it retrospectively justified the role of the West in the nineteenth century Opium Wars, when of course we fought the Chinese to compel them to accept a private British drugs trade that they were fighting to suppress.
Its chief literary product was Fu Manchu, holder of four doctorates from Western Universities, and possessor of such vile substances as an elixir of life, enabling him to live to a fabulously advanced criminal age. I recall that the Fu Manchu films were still an occasional staple of daytime television in my youth. They have largely faded away as a cultural product, and are not much missed (save perhaps in the wilder longings of the tabloid imagination).
Of all the various arguments behind the suggestion that Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old winner of the women’s 400 metre individual medley, is a drugs cheat, the most compelling is that she has reduced her time for the 100m freestyle in a year by 7 seconds.
US coach John Leonard says this is an impossible rate of improvement and compares Ye Shiwen to Michael Phelps, Leonard rejected comparisons to Michael Phelps, who broke the 200m butterfly world record when he was just 15, saying the American got “consistently faster every year on a normal improvement curve”.
These are Shiwen’s best times for the 100 metre freestyle at ages 14, 15, and 16: 2010 4:33.79 / 2011 4:35.15 / 2012 4:28.43
You will notice that Shiwen’s 2012 time is quite a bit faster than her 2011 time, but barely faster than her 2010 time, i.e. like quite a lot of professional sports people her progress has not been continuous, but punctuated, with (presumably) a growth spurt coming at just the right time.
These are Phelp’s best times for the 200 metres butterfly at ages 14, 15, and 16: 1999 1:55.42 / 2000 1:56.50 / 2001 1:54.58
You’ll see exactly the same pattern of a fast time, followed by a year’s regress, followed by a world best performance.
You’ll also see that in 2011 when he broke the world record, Phelps was about 1.6% faster than he had raced as a 15 year old, and about 0.9% faster than he had been 2 years before. In Shiwen’s case the improvements were 2.5% and 0.5% – i.e. her progress is a little bit faster than Phelps’ if you compare them over 1 year but slower than him if you compare them over two.
I don’t see any significant difference between their improvement rates at all.
“You can’t turn around and call it racism to say the Chinese have a doping history,” Leonard said. “That is just history. That’s fact.”
It is “fact” in the same way that Fu Manchu is “fact”: almost all the doping history at the top level of Chinese swimming relates to athletes caught in the mid-1990s and not since.
Nor is US elite sport exactly drug free – at the climax of the athletics, in the men’s 100 metres, American eyes are expected to turn to Justin Gatlin, winner of the US Olympic trials, and banned in 2006 for 8 years (reduced to 4 on appeal) after a positive drugs test.
I would urge you to cheer the Jamaicans on the track and Ye Shiwen in the pool. That’s unless you really do believe that China was and is still a society of drugs bosses, led no doubt by some moustachioed evil overlord…