This time, the world was ready for them. And, to everyone's surprise,
they were not ready for the world.
The Chinese women swimmers came to Atlanta much as they went to Rome for
the World Championships in 1994-as the ones to beat. In Rome, spectators
stood 12 times for the playing of the Chinese anthem. In Atlanta, in what
could best be described as a hecatomb, the hymn was played once.
Given the Chinese team's world rankings coming into the Olympics, their
poor showing in Atlanta was as far-fetched as their incredible dominance
in 1994. As one coach said, they are damned if they do, and damned if they
don't, but the swimming world had reason to query. Why were there such discrepancies
in their performances? What happened to their superior training methods?
The Chinese, as usual, avoided questions, and those that did show up to
press conferences had little of substance to say.
The veterans put in the few individual medal performances. Sprint queen
and world record-holder Jingyi Le won the only gold in the 100 freestyle
(54.50). Le was pleased with her performance and said she planned to swim
at least another year. A silver medal in the 50 free (24.9), however, had
her dissolved in tears for long after the race. Her coach, Zhou Ming, who
was suspended for a year by the Chinese Federation after the drug scandals
in 1994, said that she was upset because she "really, really wanted
Butterflyer Limin Liu, the only woman to ever come close to Mary T. Meagher's
200 world record, lost the gold in the 100 butterfly by 1/100 of a second
to Amy van Dyken of the U.S. In the 200 butterfly, she was upstaged by Yun
Qu, who was her runner-up in both fly events in Rome. The two women were
out of the medals (4 th and 5 th).
Li Lin, the only Chinese woman to swim in three consecutive Olympic Games,
managed a bronze in the 200 IM; her time of 2:14.74 was well off her world
record of 2:11.65. Another world record-holder, backstroker Cihong He, swam
a miserable 1:05.87 in the 100 backstroke, more than 5 seconds over her
world record time. She finished 26 th out of a field of 36-hard to believe
it was the same swimmer as 2 years before. As former world record-holder
Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary, who opted out of the event, said, "It's
And as for the newcomers, the results were far below expectations. Freestyler
Ying Shan, who went into the meet ranked first, ahead of teammate Jingyi
Le in the100 freestyle in 54.59, finished 9 th in 55.74.
The two Yan Chens-one was born in '79 and swims only backstroke, and one
was born in '81 and swims IM and freestyle-as usual, lead to confusion.
While the backstroker performed at her level, the freestyle/medley swimmer
came into the meet with a 4:11.33 entry time in the 400 freestyle. She swam
a 4:22.55 to finish in 29 th place. In the 200, she scratched after qualifying
last for the B final. Ranked first in the world in 400 IM with a time of
4:40.85, Chen managed a dismal 4:53.87 to finish 17 th.
Yanyan Wu, entered with a 4:41.20 in the 400 I.M. finished 18th with a 4:54.70
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa
Her compatriot Yanyan Wu was ranked first in the 200 IM and second in the
400 IM going into the meet, but could not place better than 10 th place
in the 200 and 18 th in the 400; in the latter race, her time of 4:54.07
was almost 13 seconds off her best. Yuan Yuan was ranked 5 th in the world
in the 200 breaststroke and finished in 24 th place.
And it went on. The Chinese relays were also unremarkable. They took silver
medals in the 4x100 and 4x200 freestyle relays, and bronze in the 4x100
medley relay. Gone were the explosive starts that got a body-length lead
in the first 10 metres. Gone was the aggression on the last 25.
A lone Chinese man, Chengji Jiang, made the finals and set national records
placing fourth in both the 100 butterfly (53.20) and the 50 freestyle (22.33).
Something certainly went wrong. Prior to the Olympics, Chinese coaches,
in an unusual display of bravado, announced that their women meant business
And yet when the time came it almost seemed as if they had been told to
hold back. The incidence of their swimmers finishing just outside of the
finals indicated such an order.
To save face, their complaints were many. From bad food (no Chinese food
in the cafeteria, just American steaks!) to competition jitters to repeated
fire alarms in their residence in the middle of the night, nothing was going
The younger swimmers, having catapulted to the top of the world rankings
at their Olympic Trials in April, were excused as rookies who had never
dealt with the pressure of an Olympics before. "This is totally normal,"
said Liu's coach, Zhao Ge. But to put such dismal performances down to nervousness
is, as one journalist put it, "total nonsense." The women in Rome
certainly had no problem with nerves, and they had equally little experience.
Has the turtle blood lost its potency? Or was there a shortage of caterpillar
No, it is more likely that the Chinese were scared coming to Atlanta. With
drug testing groups breathing down their necks over the last months and
the certain knowledge that even one positive test would mean crashing and
burning, they were not about to take a chance. They eased up on whatever
they take even earlier that usual, and for the rookies, the lasting effect
was just not enough. For the veterans, that is those who are still around,
they've had enough chemically enhanced training to allow them to perform
at a reasonable level, but nothing like their greased lightning swims in
1994. The "golden flowers" were beaten again and again.
That's one theory for what was an unusual turn of events. It was also amazing
to see that once the heat was off the Chinese, the Americans were quick
to find another object for their accusations. Michelle Smith caused as much
of a stir all by herself as the whole team of Chinese women did in 1994.
As we embark on a new Olympiad, only time will prove which theories were
right, if any. But if the drug hounds have had an effect on drug use by
Chinese athletes, as it seems they have, then perhaps there is some justice.
Just enough to fulfill the Olympic dreams of a few.
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