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.