Back in the swim

Ye Shiwen, who won gold for China at this year’s London Olympics, at a national competition in Huangshan in September

For Ye Shiwen, China’s 16-year-old swimming sensation, there was no period of fun or relaxation after winning two golds at the London Olympics. Her parents had promised to take her to Hong Kong Disneyland but it turned out there wasn’t enough time. In early August, on the same day that she returned to Hangzhou, her hometown in eastern China, she got back into the pool and resumed her training. Two months later, while Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt was bar-hopping in Australia, Ye was racing again in a national competition, broadcast in prime time on China’s top sports channel.

In London Ye found herself at the centre of controversy after she blitzed the field in the women’s 400m individual medley, claiming the world record and beating her personal best by five seconds. There was no evidence that she had ever used drugs but her speed over the final length, which she swam faster than the 6ft 2in-tall American Ryan Lochte, who won gold in the men’s medley, fuelled intense speculation that she had been cheating. John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, lent a voice of authority to the doubts. “Any time someone has looked like superwoman in the history of our sport they have later been found guilty of doping,” he told the Guardian.

The International Swimming Federation came to Ye’s defence, pointing out that she had passed four drugs tests in the past year. Other swimming experts pointed out that Ye’s trademark has always been her flying finish to races.

But for many people in China the speculation touched a raw nerve. It betrayed a “lack of respect for athletes and for Chinese swimming”, according to Xu Qi, the head of China’s swimming team. “We recognise and accept the existence of extremely talented swimmers in other countries. Can’t China, with its huge population, produce such talent?”

One bright autumn day in September, Ye and around 600 of China’s best swimmers gathered in a small arena at the foot of Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain, for a national competition. A one-hour flight from Shanghai, Huangshan is a major Chinese tourist destination, known for its jutting granite peaks. Ye will not, however, be doing any sightseeing. “It’s my first visit here and it looks beautiful, but I won’t have a day off,” she tells me.

At 5ft 7in, Ye is a little shorter than average for female competitive swimmers, and, though her shoulders are broad, they do not bulge. In fact, the most striking thing about her is just how normal she looks. Her face is more remarkable for its baby fat rather than any extraordinary musculature. She looks nothing like the square-jawed, heavily muscled Chinese female swimming champions of the 1990s.

The only physical features that really distinguish Ye are her hands and feet. “When I was six, my kindergarten teacher noticed how big they were and thought I would be well-suited to swimming,” she says. Five years later, aged 11, she was selected for her provincial team, going into competition against women twice her age.

Her coach on the provincial team, Xu Guoyi, 42, a straight-talking man with an easy laugh, was initially unimpressed by her swimming ability. “I figured she had been brought to me through some sort of backdoor connection,” he jokes. “Then little by little I saw that she was able to learn very quickly. Some swimmers fight against the water, others are like fish.”

In Huangshan one morning after training, I join Ye and Xu for lunch at a hotel restaurant near the pool. Swimmers who work out constantly tend to have voracious appetites and Ye is no exception, albeit with Chinese characteristics. She ploughs through a mound of fried noodles, a plate of the local speciality of chouguiyu, or stinky fish, and six braised duck tongues, letting out a little burp at the end.

For all her grace as a swimmer, Ye is still refreshingly rough around the edges in her public image. Chinese athletes are often drafted into the Communist party propaganda machine because their popular appeal gives grey officials a way to connect with China’s youth. Like other Olympic champions, Ye has been paraded in front of the cameras to meet Hu Jintao, China’s president. Unlike others, however, she hasn’t yet mastered the art of the politically correct soundbite. “He asked me if I was 16. I said, ‘Yes,’ ” she says of the meeting. “And then I forget everything after that.”

The responses and statements of Chinese athletes can get lost in translation. After Ye set a world record in the 400m race, she was widely reported in foreign media as having made only the tersest of tweets on her Chinese microblog: “The first day’s competition is finished. The score is satisfactory. Tomorrow I still have the 200m and will continue to strive.” A better translation would have cast her in a much more human light: “First day’s race is over, yay! Extremely pleased with the result, and tomorrow have the 200m, so gotta keep going strong!”

Having won her first major gold medals at the age of 14, at the Asian Games in 2010, Ye is more self-assured than most teenagers. But she still has a girlish streak: stuffed animals dangle from her backpack, and she says one of her favourite pastimes is doing her nails.

She is aware of the constraints her lack of English presents at international competitions. “I get very nervous before races,” she says. “The atmosphere can be oppressive. The other swimmers joke and laugh with each other but I can’t talk with anyone, and I need to chat to relieve the pressure. It’s hard to take.”

I remind Ye of the packed news conference she gave after she won her second Olympic gold when she faced question after question about whether she had used drugs. She fended them off calmly at the time but today says it remains a sore point. “It made me very angry. I put in so much effort only to have my results called into question.”

What made the suspicions about Ye all the more potent is the not-too-distant past of the Chinese swimming team. In the early 1990s China’s women dominated world swimming but their success descended into scandal. Seven Chinese swimmers tested positive for steroid use at the Asian Games in 1994 and another four were banned in 1998 after a teammate was caught smuggling human growth hormones into Australia for the world championships.

The government line in China has usually been to blame drugs use on rogue coaches. But realising that the system itself was part of the problem, national officials in Beijing began to rebuild, purging tainted coaches and introducing regular drug testing.

But just before the London Olympics, the spectre of drugs in Chinese swimming reared up again. In June, the Chinese Anti-Doping Agency announced that Li Zhesi, a member of the women’s relay team that set a world record in 2009, had tested positive for EPO, a performance-enhancing substance used in endurance sports. There was, however, one crucial difference to past scandals: Li had been found out by a domestic test.

“China has had a lot of discussions with other countries about how to control the situation,” says Wang Ping, the main swimming correspondent for China Central Television, the national broadcaster. “The old problems still make people feel a lot of pain and regret.”

China is hungry for external affirmation of its accomplishments in the pool. After I spoke to Wang, he asked if CCTV could interview me about why I was writing an article about Ye. That night, the broadcaster devoted four minutes of its sports news to a report about my meeting with Ye. The message was clear. “China shouldn’t be afraid of suspicions,” says Xu, Ye’s coach. “If we open ourselves up, we’ll prove that our coaches and athletes are OK.”

Both Wang and Xu said that China’s recent achievements in the pool were the result of a confluence of longer-term trends: more investment in sport, more sophisticated training and young athletes who are naturally bigger as the country becomes wealthier.

Money is perhaps the most important element. Li Liyan, a researcher with the General Administration of Sports, the country’s top sports body, estimated that China spent Rmb700m (£70m) per medal won during the 2004 Athens Olympics. Since then, China’s medal count has risen but so has its spending. The national sports budget, set at Rmb3.3bn this year, has been increasing by 10 to 12 per cent a year. Swimming has been a major recipient of all this cash.

China’s training regimen has also tried to adopt some international best practices. Mirroring the government’s economic strategy, the national team introduced a “go out, invite in” policy: sending swimmers abroad to train, while also luring top coaches to China, among them David Lyles, a Yorkshireman who once trained British Olympians and who became the first foreign coach to move full-time to China when he joined the Shanghai swimming team in 2005.

“In Britain you can’t go out and poach swimmers from other clubs. Whereas here I could pick any kid I wanted and train them how I wanted,” Lyles says.

Ye has been a beneficiary, training part-time in Australia under respected coaches Dennis Cotterrell and Ken Wood. “[China] pay four times more than what I get from my Australian swimmers,” Wood told Australian media after Ye’s victories. “It would frighten you if I told you [the amount].”

Still, there is no hiding that the Chinese sports regime is a relic of the Soviet command-and-control approach. Government-run schools assign promising athletes to sports and funnel them up to higher levels as they improve. Children move away from home to focus on their training.

The case of Wu Minxia highlighted how intense this dedication can be. After she won gold in diving in London, Chinese newspapers reported that Wu had not been told that her mother had cancer, and that her grandparents had died, for fear of disturbing her concentration. “Our daughter doesn’t belong to us any more,” Wu’s father told local media.

Ye’s case is less extreme. As Chinese society modernises, the sports system is becoming a little less uptight. Ye may have left home at the age of 11 when she joined the provincial team but at the weekends she normally goes back to her parents’ place.

At sports school, however, she has just six hours of classes in a normal week. In the run-up to the Olympics it was less. Xu cites this a reason for China’s success in the pool. “Compared with other countries, our athletes spend more time training and less time going to school,” he says.

There are other differences with Chinese swimmers. Britain’s swimmers were high-profile flops of an otherwise successful home Games. Last week, British Swimming published a report noting that “commercial distractions” were a factor in their poor performance. Xu says he limits Ye’s commercial deals: “Too many ads are a waste of energy. It would impact her professional development.”

On that sunny autumn day in Huangshan, where the country’s top swimmers had gathered for a national competition, Ye’s coach had decided to ease the pressure on her by entering her in events that she normally does not compete in and so was not expected to win. Coming so soon after the Olympics, it was a chance for lesser names to demonstrate their abilities. Some are as young as 13, and one competitor is wearing a Mickey Mouse swimming cap.

In the training session, around 50 swimmers plunge into the water at a time. It calls to mind the Chinese phrase commonly used to describe crowded public pools: xiang xia jiaozi (like boiling dumplings).

There are 29 teams from China’s biggest provinces and cities, as well as the army and the navy. The results will help determine their place in the national system. “Chinese athletes feel pressure to do well not just from their country but also from their provincial team,” Wang, the TV commentator, explains.

A small roar goes up from the crowd of a thousand when Ye is introduced. Loud dance music pulsates in the arena and cigarette smoke wafts into the pool area as coaches huddle near the entrance puffing away.

The day before at lunch, I had asked Ye if there were times when she ever wanted to stop swimming. “Yes, I think about that often because it’s so painful,” she replied. “Physically, it’s exhausting, and psychologically, too.”

The 50m freestyle race is over in a flash. Wearing a black swim suit and a bright red cap, Ye swims it in 25.74 seconds, a personal best and three seconds faster than her famous final length at the Olympics. But this is a single-length sprint and her time is only good enough for fourth. Ye shuts her eyes when she sees the results. The winner, Yin Fan, had just missed a spot on the team at London.

Climbing out of the pool, Ye manages a faint smile and tells the scrum of journalists facing her that she is not worried about missing the podium.

Though swimming nearly every day since the Olympics, she has also had a busy roster of public appearances. It is time to turn up the intensity again. Her plan is to start by going to a high-altitude facility in the southwest of China to improve her fitness. “My training recently has not been very systematic.”

Simon Rabinovitch is the FT’s Beijing correspondent

Additional reporting by Emma Dong

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