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Cotterell: Certain In His Shared Ignorance

Aug 1, 2012  - Craig Lord


Australian coach Denis Cotterell has put his neck on the line and defended Chinese swimmers as clean - there is nothing to answer for. He is sure.

We ought to note here, that the coach has vested interest: China is important to his personal income, Australia, his home programme unable or unwilling to pay him a rate that would see him focus on Australians with the same kind of success rate as he's having with Chinese swimmers. His work put China's men on the podium in the 4x200m free final last night when Australia was locked out.

That Cotterell, who has worked with Ye Shiwen and the men's 4x200m team and Sun Yang, thinks the young kids he works with are hard-working and even clean is one thing. What the swimming world may well object to is this exchange on ABC:

BARBARA MILLER: What would you say to those people who've raised the spectre of doping surrounding Ye Shiwen? 

DENIS COTTERELL: I don't think they know the sport. They're quite ignorant. They'd just like to imagine if it was your own daughter and you'd seen what she'd sacrificed over a large number of years, then to finally make this achievement; this is your daughter. They've seen what she's been through and now instead of acknowledging the result, there's allegations and questions. 

BARBARA MILLER: And they're definitely wrong; you're 100 per cent convinced of that? 

DENIS COTTERELL: Of course I am. 

Ignorant? Ok, Denis. Here are some questions for you:

1. What do you know of the programme the kids leave you and go home for 3 to 6 months at a time?

2. Why would Ye, a male masseur and a female China team staff member lock themselves in the disabled toilet near the call room for almost five minutes before the swimmer was due in the call room for her finals?

3. Never mind the world record, what about the last split on freestyle of the 400m medley to ensure gold, an excited 16-year-old not being cautious as she appeared to be in the 200m medley last night but showing us precisely what she is capable of: 58.6, as fast as Lochte and Phelps on the last 100m, faster than Allison Schmitt, on 1:53, brought the 200m free home in; 1.5sec faster in the last 100m free of a 400IM that Becky Adlingtion was as the best last 100m homecomer in the 400m free final at these Games; about 2.5sec faster than the average of all splits among major medal contenders over 400IM over the last 100m, including the likes of Beisel and Rice, a 1:56 200 freestyler? 

4. Do you think it right that the "daughter" you speak of is part of a regime in which 6-year-olds are taken from home to a sports excellence centre and see their parents once a year for a day for the next four years of their life (lots of examples from diver Fu Mingxia onwards)? 

5. Do you think the parents of Petra Schneider, Kornelia Ender, Caren Metschuk, Petra Thumer, and on and on, and the girls themselves, looking back on what happened, are happy to see the world opt for silence when something strange happens in the pool? (I can assure him, having spoken to shoals of them, that they have many regrets, especially the seven I met who shared 42 miscarriages between them and those who fit supportive shoes to the kids born to them with club-feet, and those who take 40 medicines a day for conditions including liver, heart and kidney ailments).

6. You're "100 per cent convinced" there's nothing like that going to happen, Denis?

7. Do you think it right for the parents of Wu Mingxia, the gold-medal winning diver, to break their silence as they have today in China and spark a national debate about the need to speak out about sports success and whether it has come at too high a human price?

Neither I nor many of my colleagues on the media bench nor the coaches and athletes reluctant to say too much right now but shaking their heads nonetheless, have fireproof answers to most of those kind of questions - but those questions are legitimate. No answers does indeed mean we are ignorant - as ignorant as Denis in fact. He may coach them sometimes but he doesn't know their full story. 

Wu, for those wondering, is making more headlines than Ye back home today because her father told a Shanghai paper that the family had not told their daughter about the death of a grandparent nor the battle with cancer that her mother was enduring because it might upset her training and focus. 

"We accepted a long time ago that she doesn't entirely belong to us," said Wu Yuming. "I don't even dare to think about things like enjoying family happiness." Wu's mother told her daughter of the cancer when she was in remission. 

"Our values have been twisted by our obsession with medals," said one Chinese post on Weibo, another asking: "Why can't people see we are losing so much in the pursuit of success [in sport]?"

Wu is part of the Soviet-style Juguo Tizhi system of talent spotting at 6 and channelling youngsters into specific sports. Between 6 and 14 Wu was among those who got to stay close to home before being moved to a national centre. The system has been accused of producing too many injured athletes at a young age. When injured, the fate of the athlete is not good: last year, a promising talent Zhang Shangwu was found living on the streets of Beijing after a centre expelled him from a gymnastics centre because he was no good to them injured. 

Neither Cotterell nor the rest of us can be asked to account for or do much about such things from afar. But we can ask: are you 100% sure?

"Of course I am" is the most ignorant of answers under the circumstances we're living through when it comes to China, sport and a horrible history that demands we don't forget and that we remain ever watchful and prepared to speak up when something simply does not feel right.