Three quick thoughts on the third day of action from London:
1. More on Shiwen from a former coach: “brings back awful memories”
Yesterday I discussed the performance of Ye Shiwen, China’s 400 IM gold medalist, in the context of her final freestyle leg being equal to that of Ryan Lochte when he won the men’s event. This issue was debated at length today, on radio and in media. Then the Guardian came out with this piece, featuring detailed thoughts by John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association.
Among other things, Leonard says the following:
“The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, ‘unbelievable’, history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved. That last 100m was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers, for people who have been around a while. It was reminiscent of 400m individual medley by a young Irish woman in Atlanta.”
The Irish woman he refers to is Michelle Smith, who surprised the world by winning the 400-IM in Atlanta before failing a dope test four years later. The East Germans, well, they need no further explanation.
Leonard goes on to say:
“I have been around swimming for four-and-a-half decades now. If you have been around swimming you know when something has been done that just isn’t right. I have heard commentators saying ‘well she is 16, and at that age amazing things happen’. Well yes, but not that amazing. I am sorry.”
“No coach that I spoke to yesterday could ever recall seeing anything remotely like that in a world level competition,” Leonard continued. “Where someone could out-split one of the fastest male swimmers in the world, and beat the woman ahead of her by three-and-a-half body lengths. All those things, I think, legitimately call that swim into question.”
“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. Does that make us suspicious? Of course. You have to question any outrageous performance, and that is an outrageous performance, unprecedented in any way, shape or form in the history of our sport. It by itself, regardless of whether she was Chinese, Lithuanian, Kenyan, or anything else, is impossible. Sorry.”
Those are fighting words. In fact, given the climate of “political correctness” around the issue, I’m surprised that someone in a position of public authority would actually say them. Not that I necessarily disagree, and as I tried to explain yesterday, asking the question is NOT the same as pronouncing someone guilty.
Regarding the Chinese, an interesting stat I saw today is that since 1990, China has produced 40 failed doping tests in swimming. That is three times more than the next highest country. The latest of those positives comes earlier this year, when a number of junior swimmers tested positive for EPO.
And so history has given us reason to be skeptical. It’s just the way it is. That, combined with her age, and combined with the rapid improvement from someone who was already at the world-class level (she was 200-IM world champion and fifth in the 400-IM when the seven second improvement occurred), gives pause for concern. A big improvement for a 15-year old is not by itself a huge problem. When that improvement moves a world-class swimmer to a level never seen before, then it’s a little different.
And related to that, the same standard should apply to any young swimmer. Tonight we saw a 15-year old huge outsider complete a remarkable series of races to win the 100m breast-stroke gold, when Ruta Meilutyte beat off Rebecca Soni. I’d be asking the same question about her, though her story may be able to answer those questions, I’m not sure.
I think at this early stage, what can be said with certainty is that Shiwen’s performances are “unusual”. That may go on to be seen as a synonym for ‘exceptional’ – I certainly hope it does. However, history has taught us that in sport, this kind of unusual often means something else. Speaking of Shiwen, she broke the Olympic record in the 200-IM last night, which is sure to provide more polarizing opinion.
2. The results from the pool haven’t gone entirely to script
The results from the pool have been dramatic for reasons other than we might have expected. First, the anticipated showdown between Lochte and Phelps in the 400IM didn’t quite materialize, as Phelps had an off-night and finished fourth. The race very nearly didn’t even happen, with Phelps only just squeaking into the final to begin with.
Then on Sunday, the Australian 4 x 100m freestyle relay team failed to live up to their favourite tag in the relay final, finishing outside the medals in fourth, and swimming only 0.66s faster in the final than they did in the heat (with a supposedly stronger squad for the final). That squad included James Magnussen, who came to London the favourite for the individual race, but found himself beaten on Leg 1 by Nathan Adrian in a relatively slow time of 48.03s. How he responds in the 100m free later in the week will be intriguing, but the form of Yannick Agnel (46.74s split with a ‘flying start’) would have everyone worried.
Then Lochte, admittedly in a weaker event for him, lost a 0.55s lead to the fast-finishing Agnel to give the USA a silver in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay. France claimed their first gold in the event. Lochte’s London continued with a fourth-place in the 200m freestyle tonight, again losing out to Agnel, with Sun and Park dead-heating for silver.
And then there is Phelps, who was always going to attract the attention in the pool. His campaign began with the 400IM ‘aberration’. He bounced back with the second fastest leg in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay, and then looked solid, if not spectacular in the heats and semi-final of the 200m butterfly. He swims that final tomorrow evening, entering the final with the fourth fastest time. He controlled his semi, so perhaps is still the favourite, but the doubt remains, as it will until he wins a race with an exclamation mark.
There are others who have been “upstaged” – Soni was a red-hot favourite, but was beaten by 15-year old Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte in the 100m breaststroke. Emily Seebohm broke the Olympic 100m backstroke record in the heat (58.23s), then went slower in the semi-final (58.39s) and then even slower in the final (58.68s), to finish with silver, when the time from her heat would have won the gold. She was beaten by an amazing double-act from Missy Franklin, who swam the 200m freestyle, jumped straight into the diving pool to swim a few laps, and was back in the 100m backstroke final almost immediately to win gold. So that’s a billing that lived up to the hype.
So an interesting swimming meet, showing that past performance is no predictor of future performance, even over the space of one day. The media often coronate Olympic champions in the pool based on the results of the US and Australian swimming trials. So far, 2012 has shown that the pool is a little more globalized than we tend to think!
3. Paula Radcliffe withdraws from the marathon
The other big news, the impact of which will only really be felt in a few days’ time is the withdrawal of Paula Radcliffe from the marathon. Radcliffe’s Olympic marathon story is a long and painful one. Two failed attempts in Athens and Beijing had led to the home performance, but as the months have gone by, it has been clear that Radcliffe just could not put together a consistent series of performances. Whether it was illness or injury
Radcliffe’s decision, which she announces in this statement, must have been an agonizing one to make. Having been burned by two Olympic Games, the second one by injury, she would have been mindful of history, and one can hardly blame her. Especially because NOT finishing her home marathon would bring the British press and public down on her. Judging from the post-Athens reaction, that’s a cruel experience that most would wish to avoid. She may yet have a Games in her, but one feels that this may be the end for the world’s fastest female marathoner.
And a final thought for SA readers – tonight sees our next medal chance in Chad le Clos in the 200m butterfly. He qualified in second for the final, beaten only by Matsuda. You have to think that Matsuda can go even faster, and then Phelps, who qualified in fourth, must be the favourite. Which means that unless le Clos can find another big improvement, he’s in strong contention for bronze, at least. That will be hotly contested, with four men within half a second of one another. Le Clos broke the Africa record to get lane 5 for the final, and so he is on the right trajectory. It should be a fascinating race.
For the global audience, it’s the race that really should see Michael Phelps tie Larissa Latynina for the all-time Olympic medal record of 18, and he may become the first man to win the same event at three consecutive Games.
Recap later (or tomorrow, depending on Olympic fatigue!)