Judging a Champion By Race

by Casey Barrett

Rampant xenophobia fuels cheating allegations against China’s medley champion, Xe Shiwen… 

We can’t be sure. This should go without saying. Declaring total conviction on either side of a cheating debate is foolish. To paraphrase the mighty Doc Counsilman: The only thing I know is that I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know: There is a very ugly undercurrent beneath the cheating allegations against China’s Xe Shiwen. Certain coaches and commentators can go red-faced and deny it all they like, but there is a big dose of xenophobia behind all this. Because if Stephanie Rice or Hannah Miley or Elizabeth Beisel had gone 4:28 in the 400 IM, with an eye-popping final split, no one would be saying a damn thing. All three of those women are fully capable of going 4:28 – that is the final time to remember, not the freestyle split.

Xe Shiwen’s gold medal winning times this week in both the 400 and 200 IMs are totally realistic improvements for this 16-year-old phenom. As Bob Costas pointed out last night in NBC’s broadcast, these drops are consistent with Michael Phelps’s drops at the same age. They’re consistent with every fast improving 16-year-old. Hell, when I was 16, I dropped from 4:41 to 4:32 in the 400 IM. (Yes, Ye Shiwen kicks my has-been ass…)

It’s not her times or her splits that have sparked this debate, it’s the fact that she is Chinese. You can say it’s not about race, it’s about her country’s dubious cheating history, so let’s take a look at that. China brought shame on itself back in 1994 when it became overwhelmingly and disgracefully clear that they were doping their athletes in a state-run systematic way. Ye was born in 1996. The China of the 90’s and the doped national team it presented to the world back then does not apply to her. Those were different times and a very different still mostly closed China.

The China of 2012 is infinitely more self aware of itself and the way it is perceived by the Western world. It has more to lose now, and it is much more willing to play the game – presumably by the rules.

No, I’m not an apologist or a denier of China’s continued lack of human rights. It continues to devalue basic humanity in all sorts of myriad ways – including the way it chooses its future sports stars, identifying them as young as age 6 and removing kids from their families almost completely. This isn’t ok, but neither is it for you to judge another culture’s choices.

The Chinese swimmers making a major splash in London – Sun Yang and Ye Shiwen – have both spent much of their training time in Australia, working with the legendary Denis Cotterell, aka Grant Hackett’s coach. Understandably, Cotterell does not appreciate these allegations against his swimmers. He’s defending them all out, claiming he is 100% certain of their innocence. While this 100% claim is unfortunate (see opening lines of this column), it is also what any coach would say about his swimmers. No coach – and I mean not a one, anywhere – can be 100% certain that his superstar swimmer is clean. You don’t need to come from a foreign land with a dark past to sneak away and dope for a bit when no one is looking.

When all drug tests are passed, you can only judge the results and the circumstances around it. Ye’s homeland might have a shady cheating past, but her accomplishments in London pass the smell test, despite what certain folks are saying. Yes, she out-split Ryan Lochte on the last lap of the 400 IM, but Lochte finished with a time 23 seconds faster – about the same gap as always between women and men. Lochte was also fading (admittedly, after over swimming the first lap of butterfly) and probably subconsciously shutting it down once he realized the gold was in the bag.

Maybe Ye is the product of something dark and dishonest back home. There is no way of knowing for sure, and there is nothing wrong with asking these hard questions in light of her country’s misdeeds a generation ago.

However, the rush to judgement reeks of xenophobia. And there is a lot wrong with that.