Chinese teen star's splash causing ripple effects

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 10:49pm


Curiouser and curiouser becomes the tale of Chinese swimming sensation Ye Shiwen, a story of a prodigy who has stunned and divided the world of sports.

The 16-year-old and her country's sports training system have been given the British media treatment following her remarkable gold medals and record-breaking performances, and she has been dubbed the Mandarin Mermaid.

The moniker is not just a whimsical piece of Fleet Street tabloid genius. It is loaded with questions and accusations, but it is not just reporters and editors asking the questions and pointing fingers. Professors, veteran sports heroes, politicians and the global public are also hotly debating the feats of the aquatic marvel from Hangzhou.

At the end of another day awash with claims, counterclaims and flat denials over the use of drugs propel the young star through the water like no woman before her, Ye - seemingly unaffected by the furore - smashed the Olympic record to win her second gold, in the 200-metres individual medley, and adding to her world record swim the 400 IM.

Quite rightly, she has received adulation from her fellow competitors and compatriots. She also enjoys overwhelming support from many former Olympians, international coaches as well as much of the British public, who do not believe everything they read in their rumbustious media.

But her continuing success is unlikely to defuse the controversy over her stunning performances, which have been damned by a senior US coach as 'unbelievable' and 'disturbing', despite her drug tests coming back clean and the International Olympic Committee stepping in to defend her.

In Sino-academic and political circles, the reaction to Ye's prowess has been declared an act of anti-China sentiment and another attempt to 'contain China'.

The British Olympic Association has also come out in full support of Ye, saying she deserves applause for her amazing ability and her Olympic spirit. The World Ant-Doping Agencey, Wada, with test tubes showing negatives results, has also declared her innocent until proven otherwise.

But still the agnostics claim the 'scientific-minded' coaches on the mainland do not just produce pure Olympic gold through tough training - but instead may be involved in the dark art of alchemy.

The world has in the past few days been introduced to the spectre of epigenetics, or gene doping in sports. Sports scientists have identified about 100 genes in an athlete's body that can be genetically modified to improve performance.

Athletes and their coaches are also well aware of the developing science and there is firm belief in the sports science community that such practice is now under way. Some claim we are starting to see results at major sporting competitions, although it has yet to be proved.

A British government report is to be released this week announcing a new sports lab in the country, which is to start examining the new phenomena of genetic tweaking. Government scientists started research into genetic manipulation in sports in 2006, so don't be surprised by the British media's state of excitement and keen interest over the issue at their Olympics.

But to date, such genetic tampering cannot be detected by the anti-doping agencies, who struggle on a daily basis to keep sports pure and ensure what the public see is what they think they see - humans striving for victory with only what they were born with.

However, many predict gene-manipulation will one day soon become part of modern medicine and public health policy and gene tweaking will be used to treat illness and ailments for us all. Modern medicine is doing marvels. But where does this leave, say, the average archer who corrects his vision through laser-eye surgery and then strikes the bullseye repeatedly? Is this cheating?

If you and I can seek legally approved treatment, then so can an athlete. If an athlete has a muscle tear and pops a legal gene-tweaking pill to repair the fibres and make them stronger, will he or she be classed as a cheat? Or must we wake up to the new reality and accept that our sport heroes must, like the public, move with the medical times and drop the organic label?

Professor Andy Miah, the author of Genetically Modified Athletes, says the challenge for athletes is that we are telling them - perpetually - to go faster, higher, stronger. 'Yet they are restricted by the means by which they can do this,' he says.

'There is going to be an explosion of medical health enhancements that athletes can use and I don't think it is a case of test or not test, ban or not ban. I think medical supervision is the way to go,' Miah said.

Many disagree, claiming tolerance and acceptance of such scientific enhancement go against the nature and spirit of sports.

Miah said it would take eight years to find out if an athlete had used gene therapy. 'Under the current rules, if wrongdoing is found, we could see many 2012 medals being redistributed in 2020,' he said.

Meanwhile, it is onwards and upwards for unstoppable China, thanks to the collective sweat of its brow, and the curious world can only look on with envy and wonder.