Ye Shiwen’s extraordinary swimming career began on an ordinary note.
When she was six, her kindergarten teacher in the ancient Chinese city of Hangzhou suggested she learn how to swim after noticing she had rather large hands and feet for a girl of her age. Ye agreed.
Within five years, she was swimming for the provincial team in Zhejiang, a southern province in China’s manufacturing heartland. And within ten, she was breaking world records.
The remarkable rise of Ye, who capped a stunning week in London by grabbing her second gold medal on Tuesday night in an Olympic record-breaking performance in the 200m individual medley, has shone light on a new generation of young Chinese swimmers.
They are the product of an overhauled sports system that has fought to shed its image as a Soviet-style, scandal-prone and closed sporting culture by embracing modern methods and outside influences.
That China has only partly succeeded in doing so was made clear this week when Ye’s first gold medal win, following a stunning final 50m freestyle sprint in the 400m individual medley, triggered controversy.
Well-known American coach John Leonard, who is the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, described her performance as “disturbing”.
His comments triggered outrage in China, where sports administrators who say they have fought hard to clean up the country’s sporting culture have accused the West of “singling out” Chinese swimmers.
“Some people,” said anti-doping chief Jiang Zhixue, “are just biased.”
“We never questioned Michael Phelps when he bagged eight gold medals in Beijing.”
Many of the doubts stemmed from Ye’s remarkable final 50 metres, where she even outpaced men’s champion Ryan Lochte — a fact seized upon by excitable commentators, who did not mention that her overall time was, in fact, much slower and Lochte, who was easing up, was even outpaced by several of his competitors on his last lap.
Although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the British Olympic Association (BOA) have come to Ye’s defence, pointing out that “she is clean” and had passed drug tests, the lingering suspicions — unfair as they may be — are an unavoidable result of the less than glorious past of China’s swimming programme.
Seven Chinese swimmers failed drug tests in the 1994 Asian Games, while another swimmer was caught trying to smuggle in banned growth hormones at the 1998 world championships in Australia.
Since then, however, Chinese administrators have launched a major clean-up of the State-run programme, employing foreign coaches and opening up a tightly-managed sporting culture.
China’s success in doing so is behind the rise of swimmers like Ye and Sun Yang (21), who became the first Chinese man to win a gold medal in swimming following his 400m freestyle win in London.
Ye is far from being the surprising success who “came from nowhere”, as some commentators in London have described her to be — with, it must be said, a few hints of suspicion.
She has, in fact been groomed by the national programme since she was 11. Ye has benefited from China opening up its once-closed sporting system.
A year after she joined the provincial team, China hired the Australian coaches Ken Wood and Denis Cotterell.
Ye, who spent two stints in Australia, described her time there in an interview with a Chinese newspaper as being “really harsh, but really helpful.”
Wood said China was sparing no expense to ensure the best training for its swimmers. “I get paid per month, per swimmer four times more than I do with my home swimmers,” he told the Associated Press.
“China is putting a lot of money into its programme and I am only too happy to work with them,” he said.
“The whole Chinese philosophy is that they want to be the best they can.”