/ 2 August 2012

Ye Shiwen: For the record

Sceptics have questioned Chinese teenager Ye Shiwen's medal-winning performance at the Olympics.
Sceptics have questioned Chinese teenager Ye Shiwen's medal-winning performance at the Olympics.

The family had gathered around the laden table for the Chinese New Year. It was a rare chance for Ye Shiwen to relax and spend time with her parents after months of tough training for the provincial swimming team. But halfway through dinner she put down her bowl and chopsticks, walked over to the balcony and shouted to the skies: "I will win it back!"

Her bemused parents learned that Ye – barely 11 then – had lost to a teammate in a race during training the previous day. Not long afterwards, true to her word, she beat her rival again.

The story encapsulates the buried but intense ambition that took a shy young girl, now 16, to a world record and an Olympic gold medal with one stunning performance this week – only to land her at the heart of an international controversy. Sceptics questioned how her performance could have improved so dramatically and, in particular, how she could have racked up such an astonishingly fast final 100m.

Others, including former British Olympic gold medallist swimmers Duncan Goodhew and Adrian Moorhouse, have attacked these comments as destructive and smacking of sour grapes. In the shadow of the row is a girl who should have been revelling in her moment of glory and focusing on her next race.

Her pink microblog page is a typical teenager's, with cutesy pictures and a snap of her cuddling a puppy. She enjoys cross-stitch embroidery – a bafflingly popular hobby among Chinese girls – as well as watching TV and reading detective novels.

In her last message to her 200 000 followers, written not long after that spectacular performance, she observed modestly: "The first day's competition is finished. The score is satisfactory. Tomorrow, I still have the 200m [which she also won] and will continue to strive. Thank you for your support."

Her parents' strategy is clearly working. Zhang Xinming, a Sports Illustrated journalist who has followed Ye's career closely, said: "Her father, Ye Qingsong, once told me: 'Her mother and I keep our eyes on Shiwen to make sure she stays grounded.'"

The swimmer was born in Hangzhou, capital of eastern Zhejiang province and one of China's most picturesque cities, to parents who had been keen amateur athletes in their youth. Her mother, Ning Yiqing, now works for a washing machine company but was a champion long-jumper when she was at school; her father excelled at running.

According to Chinese media, she took up swimming after her kindergarten teacher noticed her height and large hands and feet and surmised her build was ideal for swimming. The six-year-old joined the city's Chen Jinglun Sport School, whose alumni include two-time Olympic gymnastics gold medallist Lou Yun and former Olympic gold medallist swimmer Luo Xuejuan.

By 2007 she had made it to the provincial team; a year later, she joined the national squad. But it was at the Asian Games in 2010 that she really started to attract attention. Her time in the 200m was the fastest in the world for the year and her 400m was the second best.

Lethal weapon
Her sights were already set higher. "My goal in the coming two years is to win in the London Olympic Games," she told Chinese media.

At the Fina World Championships in Shanghai last year, she beat American world record-holder Ariana Kukors and Australia's Olympic champion Stephanie Rice in the 200m individual medley. Her freestyle was the "lethal weapon", said state newspaper China Daily.

Her brilliance and drive also make it hard for others to remember how young she is. "Every athlete wants to become an Olympic champion. And, of course, I am no exception," she said last year.

But if her gold is her main reward for her years of dedication, she still has her eyes on another prize, perhaps more fitting for her youth. Her father has promised to take her to Hong Kong Disneyland. She had, he said, been wanting to go for some time. – Additional research by Cecily Huang, © Guardian News & Media 2012

Struggle to keep pace with new drugs
Scientists are expected to conduct 6250 drug tests during the London Olympics – but is it still possible to beat the system?

How long have serious doping controls been in place?
After the doping scandals of the 1990s that followed the disgrace of Ben Johnson in Seoul and the realisation that much of East Germany's earlier dominance had been based on institutional doping, the World Anti-Doping Agency was set up in 1999 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and governments around the world.

What testing regime is in place at London 2012?
Earlier this year, London 2012 organisers proudly showed off their

gleaming £20-million testing facility in the town of Harlow, east of London. There, scientists are conducting a record 6250 tests for 240 banned substances on athletes' blood and urine. They have carried out more than 1700 already, including 368 blood tests. About half of athletes are expected to be tested, including every medallist. This has led organisers and politicians to claim that anyone cheating at these Games will be caught.

Is it that simple?
Far from it. The anti-doping agency's director general, David Howman, drew a distinction between "dopey dopers" who still have traces of banned substances in their system during competitions, and sophisticated cheats who are able to beat the system outside competition. Across sport, there are fears that one in 10 athletes is attempting to cheat, but of those only one in five is caught.

Can the agency keep up?
All those at the anti-doping frontline acknowledge they are in an "arms race" with those willing to cheat. The agency is working with pharmaceutical giants such as GSK to develop tests for new substances and calling for more help from governments around the world not only to maintain their funding, but also to criminalise the supply of performance-enhancing drugs.

Is there enough money?
The anti-doping agency's £17.8-million budget was frozen this year because national governments, which fund it 50-50 with the IOC, are unwilling to increase their contributions in a time of austerity.

Should we trust anything we see?
Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the IOC's medical commission and an anti-doping agency vice-president, was circumspect this week when asked whether an extraordinary performance such as that of the Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen in the 400m individual medley should trigger targeted testing. Yet years of weary experience have taught some coaches to believe that if a performance appears too good to be true, then it may turn out to be so. – Owen Gibson © Guardian News & Media 2012