In which I actually write about the Olympics: sexism and racism in the Ye Shiwen doping allegations

My plan for an Olympic-proof bunker has failed. I have been exposed to London in its full dystopian horrors, and been unable to avoid news and stories about a bloody sporting event. I even willingly watched the men’s synchronised diving the other day, though I had to turn off the sound to avoid the Nuremberg-style cheering from the British crowd every time a British person did something that should have been entirely expected of them.

It didn’t escape my notice, then, that a 16 year old Chinese woman has caused rather a bit of a stir. Swimmer Ye Shiwen smashed world records in the 400m individual medley. In the final 50m of her race, Ye managed to swim faster than some of the fastest-recorded male swimmers! Rather than celebrate this achievement, whispers of doping immediately began.

In a statement that smacked of sour grapes, the swimming coach for the USA team did his best attempt at media spin, avoiding an outright accusation of doping but banging on for paragraphs and paragraphs about how Ye’s swim was “impossible” and “unbelievable” while sticking in the occasional “I’m not saying she’s doping, but…”. He then manages to drop this seethingly sexist clanger:

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.”

That, right there, is the crux of the matter. The fact that if Ye Shiwen had been thrown in a pool with men, she would have beaten them too. Supermen are fine and dandy, and to be expected from a sport. It’s when a woman is as good, or better than a man that something must be wrong. This is made abundantly clear if one compares the Chinese tit-for-tat suggestion that American male swimmer Michael Phelps must be doping, which nobody seems to be taking particularly seriously.

The sexism of the whispers surrounding Ye Shiwen are reminiscent of the story of runner Caster Semenya, who ran so fast that the sporting authorities decided she must be a man in disguise and subjected her to invasive gender testing. It seems completely implausible to society at large that women can be as capable as men of sporting feats.

Indeed, sometimes it seems as though society is actively trying to keep women from reaching their true potential: an example of this comes from the incident which saw runner Paula Radcliffe temporarily stripped of her marathon world record because she had male “pacemakers” who she was racing (and beat). In the end, Radcliffe was allowed to keep her record, but the governing body ruled that women’s records must be set in women-only races.

Arguably, Radcliffe and Semenya are “superwomen”, as constructed by the US team coach. In fact, they are just women with the capacity to beat men. This is likely to be true of Ye Shiwen, too, given that the Olympics are generally pretty stringent in testing athletes for drugs.

Ultimately, the US coach’s beef lies in the fact that a woman from a different country swam faster than a man from his own country, and this does not compute. Clearly, there is a tribalism at work here, too, a patriotic belief that his country is better than any others (especially their rival China). It’s the implicit us-and-them mentality which disguises racism.

Some of the reporting, though, is less thinly-veiled in its racism. The Daily Mirror attempts to kindly say that Ye might not have been doping, but unfortunately the only way they can do this is by drawing on stereotypes about China in the most cartoonishly, embarrassingly, excruciatingly racist way possible:

The disturbing truth is that, while her performance may not be drug-enhanced, Ye Shiwen and her Chinese teammates have been manufactured like ­automatons on a cynical human production line, forged by training techniques many say border on torture.

This might not be cripplingly racist if China had a literal athlete upgrading factory, but unfortunately that’s not true. The rest of the article goes on to describe the training techniques which do not sound that far removed from how athletes train. They select promising youngsters, they start young, they train hard.

Then they win, and everyone freaks the fuck out.

That’s all there is to it: someone performed well at a sport. Time will tell if Ye Shiwen was doping, but the rumours and rush to find out speak volumes about prejudice.

35 thoughts on “In which I actually write about the Olympics: sexism and racism in the Ye Shiwen doping allegations”

  1. I’m divided on this. I’ve competed at a relatively high level in national sporting events, and I can sympathise with both sides of the agreement.

    Firstly, there is no evidence that Ye has been doping. An incredible, unbelievable performance cannot be taken as evidence of doping, or we’re just disincentivising excellence.

    On the other hand – it is a shockingly god performance. Phelps is a freak – he’s got some sort of genetic advantage that gives him a significant edge on the competition. Ye’s final lap wasn’t just significantly better, it was massively better. At that level, Olympic swimming is about pure, unadulterated strength, and for a female to beat the men – not just men in general, but the very best olympians – she’d have to be a complete genetic outlier, with a body that completely disobeys convention.

    At the end of the day though, I think China is a very big country, with a very rigorous athletic program that’s designed especially to spot genetic outliers as early as possible, and then train them to be absolutely godlike. It’s entirely possible that Ye’s amazing speed is a just a result of that program. I think any US athlete publicly going to the press and suspecting doping is unsportsmanlike, and not okay.

    The US coach has far, far more data and past experience swimming than I have, and if he suspect Ye, it’s entirely possible that he’s right. That doesn’t mean that making a public issue of it is any less unacceptable.

    1. Having read over my comment, I’m not really divided 😛
      It’s terrible sportsmanship, but I don’t think it’s sexism. If a male athlete had won with such a statistically unlikely margin, questions would have been just as audible.

  2. Hello,

    I’m really glad that you posted your thoughts about this-I’ve been attempting to avoid the games also-but I read the comments from the American swimming coach yesterday and sadly concluded that they were racist. I hadn’t thought about the comments in terms of gender, but after perusing your post I’d have to agree with your point.

    I think it is also worthwhile to consider what constitutes doping-should doping be classed as any supplement at all (i.e. legal sports nutrition products like creatine and protein supplements)? There is the aspect of ‘financial doping’ too-wealthier nations paying their athletes to train full time, providing them with the best training facilities and coaches in an effort to win the most prestige. Shouldn’t this disparity be addressed also?

    1. Very much like the phrase “financial coping”, as it neatly covers this disparity. Thanks for your comment!

  3. The comparison was grossly distorted. Here are the actual numbers:

    Last 50 m of Men’s 400m individual Medley:
    Rank 1 LOCHTE Ryan 29.10
    Rank 2 PEREIRA Thiago 29.34
    Rank 3 HAGINO Kosuke 28.52
    Rank 4 PHELPS Michael 28.44
    Rank 5 le CLOS Chad 29.28
    Rank 6 HORIHATA Yuya 27.87
    Rank 7 FRASER-HOLMES Thomas 28.35
    Rank 8 MARIN Luca 29.25

    Ye Shiwen 28.93

    Ye was the 5th fastest in the above list. Lochte was slow because he knew he didn’t need to go any faster to win the gold.

    And about history of doping. Any1 who are interested to find out may count the number of flags here.

  4. I wish people who don’t know anything about sport wouldn’t insist on writing about it. I heard it suggested the other day that women playing three sets rather than five in tennis majors is ‘sexist’, rather than because its a scientific fact that women have lower stamina reserves than men. It *is* utterly astounding that Ye swam faster than Ryan Lochte in her last 50m, just as it was when Semenya knocked six seconds off her PB in an event where progress is usually measured in tenths of a second. The questions raised are basic ones of physiology, and the significant differences between the genders in terms of strength, speed and endurance. For you to label statements of the blindingly obvious as ‘sexist’ shows astounding ignorance.

    1. Actually, the physiology argument is not as strong as you’d think. Would suggest you do some reading, starting with Delusions of Gender for a nice introduction from a scientist who writes accessibly.

      1. Please drop the ridiculous condescending bit. I’m perfectly well informed of the relevant science (infinitely more so than yourself if the above scrawl is anything to go by).

      2. Patronising doesn’t work when you dont have even a layman’s grasp of the subject matter. Although, reasonable, mature debate isn’t your strong point from what I’ve seen of any time you’ve been challenged. Call name, block, swear at, accuse of racism/misogyny….

      3. Distorting the debate by picking and choosing what you publish just smacks of childish bigotry. Your forte.

      4. There are a lot of wrong assumptions about the physical capabilities of either sex, and that’s reflected in the real world – the crazy idea that women couldn’t be good infantry soldiers, for instance. However, it’s also true that there are real, physical differences in how bodies work. A woman won’t be outrunning a man in the 100m finals anytime soon, nor will she be beating a top male tennis player. In swimming, that’s especially true, because it all comes down to muscle mass – look at the world records on wikipedia.

        Now, a not insignificant amount of that difference is probably a matter of culture and training. However, I think we have to accept that in a wide variety of sports, men have a significant edge. Muscle mass makes a HUGE difference in every sport, and men have the edge there.

      5. Cordelia Fine’s book isn’t really relevant, if at all to this discussion. It focuses far more on neuroscience than physiology.

        1. And, as anyone familiar with how sport works will tell you, psychological state and physiology are pretty linked in performance…

      6. Physiology and psychological state are linked, but it is male physiology which allows men them to perform better than women. I don’t see what your point is.

      7. Incidentally, I am very ‘familiar with how sport works’, thanks. When you’re in the wrong it doesn’t help to insult your opponent.

      8. The poster argued that physiological differences allow men to greatly outperform women in sports where strength, power and endurance are paramount. You implied the book refutes this, which it doesnt. You either haven’t read the book, or didn’t read the comnent.

      9. I think you mean they both affect importance. They aren’t ‘linked in performance’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Anyway, the take home message: women cant perform anywhere near men’s standards because of *physiological* differences. Got that?

        1. Your repeated returns to post are quite, quite precious. It’s like every hour or so you get a bit of l’esprit de l’escalier and come back to say this amazing thing you just thought of which is exactly the same goddamn thing.

          Calm down with your obsessive essentialism, and accept there’s a lot of sexism in sport.

        1. Spend a lot of time telling women they’re wrong and they can’t do things, do you? It’s actually getting a bit creepy now.

      10. You wilfully misconstrued my original comment and as a result are still labouring under the delusions which produced your original article. I was attempting to make the same point, albeit in a simpler way which you couldn’t possibly misconstrue/misunderstand.

      11. No. I’m telling *you* you’re wrong, because you are. As far as I can see you should only be able to deduce my attitude towards people who write stupid things on the internet, not women. Never slow to bring out the ‘m’ word though, are we?

  5. ‘It seems completely implausible to society at large that women can be as capable as men of sporting feats.’ I’m slightly worried by this comment. Do you seriously believe the assumption that the average male will be better than the average female at any sport which involves strength, power and endurance is ‘sexist’?

  6. I can’t speak for other sports, but the ‘sexism’ of which you speak simply doesn’t exist in athletics. The same suspicions would trail an incredible male athlete. Also, the women’s events are followed every bit as keenly as the men’s (with the possible exception of the 100m). And your description of a passionate crowd cheering on a strong medal hope at a home games as ‘nuremberg-like’ is at best silly and at worse nauseating.

    1. And yet we’ve seen articles a’plenty during the few short days of this Olympics by and about women athletes who are talking personally about the sexism they face. The cyclist who talked with a sad air of resignation about what she faces in her field. The weightlifters who wrote an excellent piece admonishing people who complain they ‘just aren’t pretty enough.’ The excellent coverage about the US weightlifters and their struggle to gain any kind of sponsorship because they aren’t slim and sexy enough to get it. The coverage of the women’s teams that are forced to fly economy class when the men’s teams fly business/first. The glib comments that never seem to stop about women’s beach volleyball. The list goes on. And on.

      While you’re right that there may well have been similar allegations about a male swimmer had he pulled such an excellent and unexpected victory out of the bag, you can’t simply disregard the language people use when they talk about her, or the runner subjected to humiliating and offensive public discussions on whether she was in fact a woman or not. Things happen to men and women, but sometimes they happen for different reasons, because of different biases, and different societal agendas.

      1. The inquiry into Semenya’s gender should certainly have not been carried out in the way it was; it was handled disgracefully by the IAAF. The South African authorities should have carried out their own investigation after the RSA championships where she first broke through.

  7. We are stronger than women and we think our heads will simply explode if you don’t admit we are stronger! And until you do, we’ll continue to call you names but yell at you for calling us names. Waaaahhh! My penis hurts! Quit accusing the Olympics of sexism, you’re threatening our privilege!

    1. Women just can’t do sports! We’re not being sexist by insisting that, we’re just worried they’ll snap a heel or break a nail, or start perioding everywhere! And they’d look so much prettier if they weren’t so muscly, and wore a bit of make-up!


      Will you go out with me? I’m a really nice guy and I’m looonely. I’ll have nothing to do after the Olympics is over and I can’t teach silly women about sportball and splashyracing.

  8. YES! I thought something very similar. Apparently the applause was “muted” for her second gold, as it had been tainted by the doping rumours- she can’t ever get that moment back if it turns out she’s totally innocent (which of course, at this point she is, and there’s no indication otherwise bar cruel speculation).

    On a side note, just fyi, having been enjoying your blogging for a while, I’ve added you to my list of recommended reading on my own blog (:

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