When I was sixteen years old, I swam my first long-course 50m breaststroke at prelims of junior nationals. It was also my first junior nationals race. I was entered in the first of many heats with no time; I had qualified for the meet with a time trial in the 100 breast. I tied another 16 year old for second and narrowly missed my senior national cut. He had swam at Pan Pacs the previous summer.
I remember vividly seeing my time, getting out of the pool and walking over to my coach, who was ecstatic. As I approached him, I overheard a passing parent say to her son: “That kid HAS to be on drugs.” My coach looked at my skinny 6’6, 165 lb frame and burst out laughing.
As funny as it seemed at the time, it really stuck with me. I realized I was getting into a sport where the unexpected is rarely expected. There aren’t a lot of major upsets in swimming. In fact, only a few have ever won a gold medal from lane eight of an Olympic final.
As soon as Ye Shiwen touched the wall, I knew that a firestorm was about to begin. Does China have a history of performance enhancing drug use among its Olympic athletes? Yes. Does the USA have a history of performance enhancing drug use among its Olympic athletes? Yes. Does China have the finances and technology to develop cutting edge performance enhancing drugs for its athletes? Yes. Does the USA? Yes. We can speculate to no end about the existence or nonexistence of these drugs, their benefits and who is using them, but it helps nobody. I don’t believe that Ye Shiwen or any other athlete should be pigeonholed because of their national representation.
People want an answer to how Ye Shiwen swam such a fast closing hundred in the 400 IM and how China has suddenly produced such success. How about her training? How about the money poured into sport in China over the last 15 years? How about the billions China has to select from, as opposed to the mere millions other countries have? It is easy to point to drugs as the answer and to force someone onto the defensive against their actions.
Until somebody unearths some evidence of illegal drug use, Ye Shiwen is just another 16 year old with a poor race strategy. And until there is some evidence of wrongdoing, I don’t believe 16 year old Ye Shiwen should have to answer to accusations that her hard work, training and dedication were the result of cheating.
Swimming has always been a sport of purity. The circumstances are as physically close to equal as possible. As such, performance enhancing drug use in swimming has always been a touchy subject. Wrongdoings in the sport have had a severely negative impact on the institutions in which we have placed our tremendous trust. But without trust, our sport cannot exist. Without the respect for our fellow athletes, the officials that govern, the coaches that educate and the fans that support, the sport of swimming cannot function. Without trust and respect, sport is not sport. We should be able to believe that the human beings that work so hard and sacrifice so much to achieve glory at the Olympics can still do amazing things. So until there is reason to believe otherwise, believe your eyes. Believe that the sport of swimming can still amaze, expect the unexpected and let Ye Shiwen enjoy her moment.