You don’t need to be racist to believe in a Chinese drugs conspiracy; but it helps

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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…

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4 responses »

    • Les, the statistics were generated by me in two stages: 1) I searched on wikipedia, and on other online sources for the two swimmers recorded pbs each year. (This took about an hour altogether; Shiwen’s best times are all on different pages within the Guardian website, including the link which I give in the main body of the text). Phelps’ times took longer to track down, but they include world records and Olympics times (which you can get from the Wikipedia pages for the world record progression and for the individual events), plus his 1999 time was a US record, so these are not impossible to locate. 2) the stats I did, as anyone can do, just by using google as a calculator.

  1. Agree completely; there’s often an element of Racism when particular Countries are singled out as dopers; and also a strong element of anti-communism too.It’s true that there was a state sponsored drug programme in East Germany in the 80’s, but after the Dubin enquiry things tightened up considerably; such a large scale programme wouldn’t have been possible.When Chinese runners ran incredible times in 93 and 97, the majority were tested, and most ran at the major champs around this time.With a few exceptions, they came back clean.Qu Yunxia and Wang Junxia were already World class runners, so I wasn’t particularly suprised when they made the step up to WR holders.A lot of the same grumblings started up about Usain Bolt in 2008, but from first reading about his exploits at the World Juniors in Track and Field News aged 15 in 2002 I thought in would be strange if he didn’t end up as world record holder, a view reinforced when he broke 20 secs for 200 two years later.

  2. 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.

    from your own link:

    In 2009 five junior Chinese swimmers were banned after testing positive for the anabolic agent clenbuterol at the 2008 national junior championships .

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