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Column by Nathan Jendrick
LONDON, England, August 9. FOR this column, I wanted to play devil's advocate a bit; perhaps stoking a little conversation on a topic still fresh from the pool where the water has only just settled during the London Olympics.
The topic sticks with my column last week where I argued that skepticism of other-worldly performances is not just appropriate, but somewhat necessary in sport. In contrast though, as previously written, I adamantly believe that accusations are entirely inappropriate. Part of that issue, of course, surrounds a general thought process that American fans only accuse athletes foreign to their shores. I shot this down with a laundry list of American athletes who have become outcasts not just in sport but in society. Yet, after an amazing performance last week by an American in the 800-meter freestyle, the comment sections of this site, as one example, blew up with the very same commentary: Ye Shiwen gets accused, Katie Ledecky gets praised. Another example of American favoritism, right? I don't think so, and I'll tell you why.
For one, Ledecky is in a breakout season. You can't necessarily say that about someone who has been in the top 10 in the world in the prior year. Athletes tend to plateau and make very small incremental improvements once they reach the top level of the sport (unless you count supersuit swims); so in a sense, an athlete's prior success works against them when it comes to breakthrough swims. Is it fair? No, not at all, but when you see a world record stand for years after being set in a technical suit deemed so advanced and fast that it's banned, and then have it get absolutely crushed, that raises eyebrows.
And that, too–the world record–becomes a psychological factor. People have a strong attachment to world records, with no example more valid than Major League Baseball's Home Run record. When it was broken by an accused doper–an American, no less!–people were up in arms. How dare this (accused) cheater take away such an emotional and stoic record as that of the one and only Hank Aaron. In Ye Shiwen's case, she broke a world record held by a generally well-received Australian and one that many thought would stand for quite some time. And she not only broke it, she demolished it. So, of course, people are going to wonder how a time that was the fastest in history, set in advanced technology, could be broken by a 16-year-old who was already pretty darn good. In contrast, Katie Ledecky didn't break a world record. She isn't the fastest performer in the history of the world. Close, yes, but without that record, there's less psychological attachment.
Further, that same type of psychology develops a bias against certain people or, in this case, countries. When people were confident in their own minds that Barry Bonds had been cheating, he not only was jeered when he took the field, but people threw syringes at him and attendance at San Francisco Giants games dropped. He couldn't make a speech without people holding up signs accusing him of tarnishing the most hallowed record in baseball. People could not wait to see him fail. It's the same reason there was such jubilation in the media when Rafael Palmiero tested positive after famously wagging his finger while denying that he had ever used an illegal substance.
And so, with China's history as the most unethical program in the history of sport (this is just fact, not my opinion or an attempt to discredit them), and their well-publicized endeavors of taking children away at young ages strictly to prepare them for sport, people in free-thinking countries are going to hold a bias. If they're able to rip children away from their parents at six-years-old, for example, why wouldn't they dope them up a la the East Germans? Again, I'm not saying it's fair, but you can't discount it. History often repeats itself and when China was caught large-scale cheating a second time, years removed from the first, I would venture to guess that it will now take several clean decades before they break the stigma. Fair? Depends who you ask.
Last, Americans get a lot of flack for supposedly sticking up for their own (which, again, often isn't true). But now, even if that were true, is that any different than any other country? I would be quite interested in reading internet message boards in China about swimming because I'm certain you would find the same conversation as here, only in reverse. Phelps or Lochte is suspicious, but Ye Shiwen is clean as the driven snow. I don't think that would surprise anyone.
There's an innate sense of wanting to believe that everything done to bring glory upon your country is pure and well-earned. In this case, it's likely so, but ultimately we all live within the boundaries of the world–and country–we live in. “Guilt by association” is a common phrase and, even in swimming, it's one that athletes are going to have to live with for better or worse until history puts enough time between old wounds and new successes.
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