Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ryan Lochte outwits Mike Phelps - Le Shiwen captures all attention


To us, Olympic Medals are dreams – but to the American swimmer Phelps [Michael Fred Phelps] they come bucketful.  He has so far won 17 Olympic medals and set numerous world records. He won six gold and two bronze at Athens in 2004 and eight gold at Beijing in 2008, winning more medals than any other athlete in either of those Games.

This year at London Olympics, things are different - Ryan Lochte knocked out icon Michael Phelps off his perch on Saturday with a brilliant performance to win the men's 400m individual medley.  Still he could not hog in the limelight for minutes later,  in the women's version of the event, a 16-year-old Chinese prodigy Ye Shiwen performed an even more amazing feat as she smashed the world record and left her competitors far behind.

In the  third heat of the Women's 400m Individual Medley she swam 4:31.73, a personal best improvement of 2-seconds when compared to her 2010 Asian Games time (4:33.79) achieved when she was 14. In the final she won the gold medal and broke the world record with a time of 4:28.43. She swam the last 50m in 28.93 seconds, which was faster than Ryan Lochte, the winner of the corresponding men's event, who swam it in 29.10.  Ye Shiwen's overall time was still approximately 23 seconds slower than Ryan Lochte's.


Ye Shiwen’s  achievement was so unprecedented that it even led some broadcasters to question whether Ye had benefited from underhand practices.  For some, it was not without smoke as her performance is seen coming after a string of Chinese swimmers tested positive for doping in recent years.  China won 12 of the 16 women's titles at the 1994 world championships in Rome but these achievements were sullied less than a month later when seven Chinese swimmers tested positive for banned drugs at the Asian Games in Hiroshima.  At the 1998 world championships in Perth, four Chinese competitors were sent home after testing positive for steroids. It came a week after one of their team mates and her coach were caught smuggling human growth hormone at Sydney Airport. China's top backstroke swimmer and record holder Ouyang Kunpeng, now 29, was given a lifetime ban after he tested positive for the same substance a month before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The ban was later changed to two years.

In recent months the much hailed 16-year-old Li Zhesi, part of the country’s winning team at the 2009 World Championships, had tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, EPO, which boosts the body’s oxygen supplies. 

Whether it was by people unable to digest the winning performance or China’s history provides much oxygen to the fire, China has become embroiled in the first doping controversy of the London Games  as  one of the world's most respected coaches described the swimming prodigy Ye Shiwen's gold medal performance as "unbelievable" and "disturbing". The American John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association,  is quoted as stating that  the 16-year-old's performance was "suspicious" and said it brought back "a lot of awful memories" of the Irish swimmer Michelle Smith's race in the same event at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.  Leonard, who said Ye "looks like superwoman" added: "Any time someone has looked like superwoman in the history of our sport they have later been found guilty of doping."

There has been simmering tensions between China and US and other countries who are still not able to digest the fact of China’s increasing dominance in the sporting arena.  There is support for Ye Shiwen flowing from many quarters which includes, International Olympic Committee medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist  who says he has 'no suspicions' over Ye Shiwen.  He is perhaps right in saying that past performance should not taint every future performance.  An outrageous performance is an outrageous performance, regardless of whether the performer Chinese, Lithuanian, Kenyan, or anything else.   

It is reported that blood  samples taken at these Games will be kept for eight years and hence it will have to be proved analytically that she was under the influence of banned substance.  If not, sure she deserves all the credit for that incredible performance and one has to have faith on the system they have created and which is binding for all the athletes irrespective of nationality.   There are further reports that  IOC's mandate is limited  because its testing programme only covers the period from when the athlete's village opens until the end of the Games.

The beauty of any game is its surprise element and the game itself would be in danger, if surprise performances automatically provoke suspicion.  IOC has in place anti doping measures and doping cheats are being caught and banned is  a positive sign; the fact that samples would be held for up to eight years is a major deterrent. Three athletes have been sent home for doping offences since the Games began.  The International Olympic Committee’s chief doping expert says he has no reason not to ‘‘applaud’’ the achievements of Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen in the 400m individual medley.  Beijing triple Olympic gold medallist and former 400m IM world record holder Stephanie Rice said Ye’ Shiewen’s time in the final 100m freestyle leg on Saturday was ‘‘insane’’. But Rice stayed well away from doping speculation.

The controversy raged outside too as  BBC presenter Clare Balding asked former British Olympian Mark Foster, who was in the studio as a pundit: ‘How many questions will there be, Mark, about somebody who can suddenly swim so much faster than she has ever swum before?’  Miss Balding’s question provoked a storm among BBC viewers on Twitter, with many praising her for daring to even hint at the possibility of cheating, but many criticising her for tainting the Chinese swimmer’s achievement and some even calling for her sacking.

So, Ryan Lochte may be speedy... but this 16-year-old Chinese girl is even quicker!  - Ye attributes her success to the training she has received since being identified as a potential champion;  for the moment we need to applaud the great efforts of this swimming sensation.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.
31st July 2012.

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