London: The first major doping controversy of the London Olympics flared to life today after John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, described the gold medal-winning performance of 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen in the women’s 400m individual medley as “unbelievable”.
Leonard, who is also the executive director of the USA Swimming Coaches Association, described Ye’s swim as “disturbing” and said that it “brings back a lot of awful memories” of Irish swimmer Michelle Smith’s winning performance in the same event at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Smith, now Michelle de Bruin, was banned for four years in 1998 after testing positive for androstenedione.
Leonard is the first major figure in the swimming world to voice his concerns after Ye’s world record swim shocked the sport as reported by Guardian UK. Ye won the 400m IM gold in a world record time of 4min 28.43sec. It was her final 100m of freestyle, in which she recorded a split time of 58.68sec, that aroused Leonard’s suspicion. Over the last 50m she was quicker than Ryan Lochte, who won the men’s 400m IM in the second-fastest time in history.
“We want to be very careful about calling it doping,” Leonard said. “The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, ‘unbelievable’, history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved. That last 100m was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers, for people who have been around a while. It was reminiscent of 400m individual medley by a young Irish woman in Atlanta.”
Stephanie Rice, the Australian who won gold in both women’s medley events in Beijing in 2008, described it as “insanely fast”. Ariana Kukors, the 2009 world 200m medley champion from the USA , said it was “amazing” and “unbelievable”. Ye also won the 200m medley at the World Championships in 2011, and qualified fastest for the semi-finals of that event in Monday morning’s heats, in a time that was 1.61sec quicker than her nearest competitor.
Leonard said that Ye “looks like superwoman. Any time someone has looked like superwoman in the history of our sport they have later been found guilty of doping”.
Ye was more than seven seconds faster in the Olympic 400m IM final than she had been in the World Championship equivalent last July. Leonard said that improvement was possible, but very hard to do. “But the final 100m was impossible. Flat out. If all her split times had been faster I don’t think anybody would be calling it into question, because she is a good swimmer. But to swim three other splits at the rate that she did, which was quite ordinary for elite competition, and then unleash a historic anomaly, it is just not right.”
Asked about the accusation that she was doping, Ye replied: “The Chinese team keep very firmly to the anti-doping policies, so there is absolutely no problem.”
Leonard also questioned why Ye was not competing in the 200m or 400m freestyle, despite her phenomenal performance in that discipline in the medley, saying that was one of “a whole bunch of other questions” .
Leonard has been executive director of the WSCA since 1989. “I have been around swimming for four-and-a-half decades now,” he said. “If you have been around swimming you know when something has been done that just isn’t right. I have heard commentators saying ‘well she is 16, and at that age amazing things happen’. Well yes, but not that amazing. I am sorry.” Leonard said that the consensus in the coaching community he represents was that the swim was “unbelievable” and “I use that word in its precise meaning. At this point it is not believable to many people.”
Leonard is one of the most respected coaches in the swimming world. He helped found the World Swimming Coaches Association in 1988 and received the USA Swimming Athletes’ Appreciation Award in 1996, for his strong stance on anti-doping. He serves on several committees for USA Swimming,, has worked for US Swimming at six Olympic games, and has written four books on the sport.
“No coach that I spoke to yesterday could ever recall seeing anything remotely like that in a world level competition,” Leonard continued. “Where someone could out-split one of the fastest male swimmers in the world, and beat the woman ahead of her by three-and-a-half body lengths. All those things, I think, legitimately call that swim into question.”
Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission and a veteran anti-doping official, said that as yet he had no particular suspicions around the Chinese swimmer.