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Questions 'Justified' in Wake of Ye's Sweep

Jul 31, 2012  - Karin Helmstaedt

It's all so nasty, isn't it - all this suspicion and doubt - and the fact that an exceptional athletic performance can rarely just be allowed to stand on its own for what it is.

But when Renate Bauer saw Chinese Olympic gold medallist Ye Shiwen's split breakdown on paper she thought there had been a mistake.

"That can't be," she said. "Anyone who knows swimming knows that the 400 IM is one of the most taxing events, with the quick stroke changeovers, and it really takes it out of you on the end."

She was referring to the turbo-charged last leg of Ye's 400 IM on Day 1 of the Olympic competition that made swimming experts' eyes bug out of their heads. Her final split in the 100 freestyle defied all logic and historical progression when she swam a final 100 freestyle that equalled that of Ryan Lochte, the gold medallist in the men's event on the same evening. Her final time of 4:28.43 blasted more than a second from the previous world record set in a polyurethane suit.

Bauer, formerly Vogel, is herself a former East German Wundermaedchen and triple world champion breastsroker. She knows only too well how anabolic steroids work in terms of powering young women and girls to positions of prowess - with superhuman recovery times after a world class effort.

Just 16, Ye is now at the centre of a maelstrom of speculation reminiscent of a not-so-distant world swimming championships in Rome back in 1994.

That was when the People's Republic of China - already well on its way to world ranking domination with their female track athletes - sent a delegation of women swimmers on a seek-and-destroy mission.

Those women were not only muscled so as to strike fear into the hearts of many men on the pool deck - but with the exception of four events, they systematically won every women's discipline in the program - for a total of twelve gold medals -eight of those titles won in world records that weren't so much broken as obliterated.

Of the entire women's elite swimming population at the time - the 600 best in the world from over 50 nations - only three women prevailed to hold off their advance: Germany's Franziska van Almsick, America's Janet Evans and Australian breaststroker Samantha Riley.

Just a few weeks later 7 of those China team athletes tested positive for anabolic steroids.

It was the questions that did it. And in the wake of an East German steroid-pumped domination of the sport that had lasted almost 20 years, people were right to ask questions, to doubt, and to demand tighter controls to reign in the cheats.

Here we are again, and the doubters are being branded "racists" as Chinese officials and media scramble to avoid a diplomatic incident. And the chairman of the IOC medical commission and WADA vice-president Arne Ljungqvist, is waving away the smoke and saying he sees no reason for concern.

No reason for concern? Tell that to the coaches and former athletes for whom Rome was already a déja vu. Tell it to those who stood on deck at the 1986 world championships in Madrid and watched as East German women won 13 of 16 events - adding silver in five. For crying out loud, had the questions not been so rife in the 90s, there wouldn't even be a WADA to preside over.

Swimming history is based on hard facts - an no country that has systematically cheated can ever be trusted not to do it again - that goes for Germany as well. Questions, doubts and suspicions in athletics across all nations are spoken aloud at every turn and the alarming number of positive tests announced just prior to these Games tells us the issue is as topical as it ever was - if not more.

Bauer, who worked for many years as a swim coach in West Germany after escaping from the East, has spent decades observing the sport. And her comments are as telling as those of World Swimming Coaches Association executive director John Leonard - also made yesterday.

Any swimmers who've been asked about it, including Lochte himself, have used words like "insane."

"To bring it home like that is unbelievable, utterly unbelievable," Bauer said. "I didn't see the swim - but it makes me wonder if there isn't more to it than meets the eye."

That question hangs in the air here in London - as well as the question of what kind of career Ye Shiwen - now reigning world champion and double Olympic champion - will have after these Olympics are consigned to the history books. That too is a question we are perfectly justified in asking.

Ljungqvist was quoted today in papers around the world as saying that if a surprise performance is immediately suspected as being a cheat, that "sport is in danger for sure." He - and several of his IOC colleagues - are worried about the "charm of competitive sport" being lost if exceptional performances are shrouded in suspicion.

When will any of these amnesiacs wake up to the fact that the if we don't ask the questions, that's when sport will truly be in danger.