independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Vincent Hogan: How fast is too fast?

China's Ye Shiwen poses with her gold medal after winning the women's 200m individual medley in London.

You couldn't help but think this week, as the world began to wrestle with swimming's latest unsolved puzzle, of a tiny, solitary tricolour waved from the Atlanta bleachers 16 years ago.

Michelle Smith's name was invoked many times on the pool-deck as some American amphibians flew into palsied agitation at the sight of Ye Shiwen smoking up the Olympic pool faster than a man. Questions, questions, questions. When gold medal winners climb out to polite applause, you know the Games are being tugged towards the inevitable pharmaceutical sideshow.

Back in '96, I was one of the Irish journalists who took Smith's side in a media civil war that, to this day, places an invisible moat between previously fraternal work colleagues.

The demonisation of our triple gold medallist in Atlanta seemed a personal matter at the time and those of us who defended her were maybe drawn to some bogus interpretation of a patriotic duty. We understood that there were questions, we just hadn't yet reached the new journalistic world where over-reaching athletes were presumed guilty unless proven otherwise.

When I think back to those days now, it's that single tricolour that comes to mind. Every evening in the Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre, Michelle's parents would sit in the same spot, waving their flag. The emotion coursing through them must have been extraordinary as their daughter became one of the most photographed people on the planet.

Technically, Smith's Atlanta medals were won legitimately, but you don't see her face on any media billboards now when a new Olympiad rolls round. Despite her dad Brian's pleas on 'Liveline', she didn't get to carry the torch. For Michelle's achievements lie discredited by events that occurred when testers called to her Kilkenny home two years later.

What some of us had mistaken for a carnival of chauvinism in Atlanta, now returns as justified doubt. The purported 'sweets' of choice in Atlanta were peptide hormones, impossible to detect in urine. Then, as now, it was accepted that the drugs police were probably hopelessly adrift of the modern generation of cheats.

And that's the curse of the modern Olympics. Sixteen years later, all that's changed is the small print. Every Games eventually bring us to the same, familiar crossroads, a point of intersection where everybody is invited to make up their own minds on what is bogus and what is authentic.

Laden with its secrets, the Olympics essentially invites the world to guess.

Winning seemed a faintly joyless experience for Shiwen as she faced down this week's innuendo and you had to remind yourself that this girl was a 12-year-old during the Beijing Games. By then, she'd been uprooted from her family and recruited into the Juguo Tizhi, China's Soviet-style national training system into which children as young as six can be conscripted into the sports equivalent of national service.

So Shiwen ceased to have a childhood. She got called to a life predicated upon one unbending narrative. Gathering glory for the Motherland.

Now it surely stands to reason that any kid strong enough to endure and even thrive in that system might do extraordinary things. Just this week, one Chinese newspaper had to apologise for branding a 17-year-old weight-lifter who failed to lift her starting weight "a national disgrace". Another weight-lifter, having won silver, felt compelled to apologise for not delivering gold.

Ye Shiwen doesn't come from a place where parents set early morning alarms to get their children to the pool. She comes from a world where they get to see their children only at weekends. Where families become just cogs in a great machine.

Trouble is, so much of this week's coverage kept vaulting back to the '94 World Championships, after which 11 Chinese swimmers were found to have been cheats. China has form, became the implicit message. But then so has the US (on top of a history of hypocrisy). So has Europe, East and West. So has everyone.

The sceptics jump on any aberration in improvement curves and, given that swimming always dominates the first week of an Olympics, the eyes of the world watched Ye Shiwen win gold this day last week. Her mistake was to burn the field away.

You see, we accept that every Olympics is a melting pot of the beautiful, the neurotic and the crooked. Someone must fit all classes.

Prior to the Atlanta Games, the doubts about Michelle Smith had America's swim media on a war footing. Some from these parts joined them in the trenches, some of us preferred to take her at her word. Were we fools?

A week before the opening ceremony, the BBC's 'Panorama' programme astonishingly implied that as many as three from four athletes could be using performance enhancing drugs. Dr Joe Commiskey, chief medical officer of the Irish team, disputed that arithmetic. He pointed out that he'd been randomly testing Irish athletes over the previous three months.

He had even intercepted one of them after an appearance on 'The Late Late Show'. Her name was Michelle Smith.

"What is too fast?" asked Michael Johnston on the BBC this week. "I did something incredible. Ian Thorpe did something incredible. Bolt and Phelps have done something incredible. But what is too incredible? Where do you draw the line?"

Sobering to think that we were asking that same question in Atlanta, when Ye Shiwen was just a couple of months old.

Irish Independent

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