China’s Games

Smart bet says $800M investment will pay in gold
Sun Yang, of China, after winning the gold medal and setting an Olympic record in the men’s 400 freestyle finals at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, in London, July 28, 2012. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
An unbelievable power
Doug Mills/The New York Times

There is nothing imposing about Ye Shiwen. At five foot eight and 141 lb., she has an average build for a female swimmer. And the hands that first caught the eye of her kindergarten teacher back home in Zhejiang, China, and diverted her life’s path to the pool no longer seem quite so large on a 16-year-old. Out of the water, she adopts the polite, businesslike demeanour favoured by so many of her teammates, betraying little emotion. But in between the ropes at the London Aquatics Centre, the girl the Chinese press has nicknamed the “young general” is proving to be a monster, churning to victory in times that have her country cheering—and the rest of the world scratching their heads.

The most eye-popping was her gold medal performance in the 400-m individual medley. Not only did Ye shave more than a second off the world record, she beat her own personal best by a full five seconds, finishing in 4:28.43. Sitting second to American Elizabeth Beisel as the race entered its final 100 m, Ye simply turned on the jets and left the reigning world champion flailing for the silver. From up in the stands, it looked like she had a propeller.

But tongues starting wagging as soon as the 16-year-old’s splits for the freestyle leg—29.25 for the first 50 m, then 28.93 for the last length of the pool—hit the scoreboard. Not only were they quicker than any of her competitors, they were faster than anyone in the men’s 400-m IM. Ryan Lochte of the U.S., considered the best all-around swimmer on the planet, swam his last leg 0.17 seconds slower on the way to a gold. “Unbelievable,” was the assessment of John Leonard, who has coached the U.S. swim team at six Olympics and now heads the World Swimming Coaches Association. “And I use that word in its precise meaning. At this point, it is not believable to many people.”

And the questions only got louder after her second gold in 200-m IM. Ye’s split for the final free leg wasn’t quite so gaudy—29.32—but she did go from third place to first over just 50 m, turning in the fastest time since full-body shark suits were banned and establishing a new Olympic record. (It was China’s 13th gold of the 2012 Summer Olympics, and 22nd medal overall.) After all, the Chinese swim program has a long history of doping, with 40 positive tests during the 1990s alone, and another 16-year-old, Li Zhesi, being caught for the blood-booster EPO this past spring. Ye has never failed a test, and Chinese officials have expressed annoyance that the issue is even being raised, with one former team doctor going as far as to call the Americans “evil.”

But whether the suspicions are legitimate or simply sour grapes, the bigger picture is that London 2012 is shaping up to be China’s Games. The first few days saw their red-and- yellow flag raised to the rafters in swimming, diving, shooting, gymnastics, archery and fencing. And the world’s most populous nation is matching the torrid pace it set at home in Beijing in 2008 when Chinese athletes topped the table with 51 golds. Four years ago, the Americans were able to claim a moral victory because they won more hardware overall—110 to China’s 100. This time around, the smart bet says China will emerge as the undisputed world sporting superpower.

At the country’s first Olympics in Helsinki in 1952, they didn’t win a single medal, and left early in a huff over the participation of Taiwan. Still, when the Communist government finally allowed its athletes to return to the Summer Games in 1984, they showed plenty of prowess, hitting the podium 32 times. By Sydney in 2000, China had raised its total to 58 medals, including 28 golds. Four years later in Athens, there were 32 golds and 63 medals. Then the Chinese decided that they really cared.

As part of its preparations for Beijing, the government put a plan into place that identifies potential Olympians at an extremely early age—often just as they enter the educational system—and streams them into 3,000 specialized sports schools where hours each day are devoted to practice and conditioning. Then from that talent pool of 400,000 students, the most promising are funnelled into 150 elite academies to be groomed for provincial and national teams. With almost $800 million a year in state funding, it is the most extensive and expensive sporting regime on the planet. Small wonder then that the rest of the world is having such a hard time keeping up. Desperate for a good showing at home, the British government sank $414 million into its athletes over the four years running up to London 2012. The official pre-Games target for Team GB was 48 medals, but others, like the Guardian newspaper, were predicting as many as 84, with 25 of them gold. Five full days into the competition the Brits were tied with Canada at four medals, none of them gold.

Another building block of China’s success has been its intense focus on the most medal-laden disciplines. In Beijing, three quarters of their golds came in just six sports—diving, shooting, table tennis, gymnastics, badminton and weightlifting. And there is still room for improvement. Chinese divers captured only seven of the eight golds in 2008, and are making it clear that their expectations are to sweep in London. Wu Minxia, who won gold in 3-m synchro competition with her partner He Zi, was rather blasé about the victory. “It feels normal,” she told a news conference. Maybe that’s because it was the fifth Olympic podium and third gold of her career. Or as she noted: “I really don’t have that many emotions.”

And now the sense of entitlement and heavy expectations extend to the bigger pool at the other end of the Aquatics Centre. In Beijing, China won a total of six swimming medals, but just one gold. Halfway through London’s meet they had already tied that mark, and this time three are golds. Sun Yang, a 20-year-old who burst onto the scene at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, took gold in the 400-m and silver in the 200-m freestyle races. And he will be Ryan Cochrane’s toughest opponent in the 1500-m race that closes out the competition—the contest that Canada has circled as its fail-safe swimming medal.

If anything, the results from the pool in London are proving that the list of top nations is no longer quite so predictable, and the medal winners quite so battle-tested. Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old American phenom whose parents both hail from Canada, won gold in the women’s 100-m backstroke just 14 minutes after swimming into the semis in the 200-m freestyle. In the women’s 100-m breaststroke, 15-year-old Ruta Meilutyte took gold, giving Lithuania its first-ever swimming medal. Pressing her green-gold-and-red-painted nails to her face, she seemed more shocked than anyone in the building that she had beaten the defending Olympic champion Rebecca Soni of the U.S. And even the if Michael Phelps made history in London, becoming the most-decorated Olympian ever by winning his 19th, he has hardly dominated the way he has in past Games.

That changing of the guard however, has yet to benefit Canada. As in Beijing, even personal bests are proving to be inadequate to make the podium. Scott Dickens of Burlington, Ont., set a Canadian record in the heats of the 100-m breaststroke but wasn’t able to advance past the semis. Julia Wilkinson of Stratford, Ont., transcended in the heats of the 100-m backstroke—“I think I saw God in the last 20 m,” she joked. “He was singing The Final Countdown”—but placed ninth in the semifinals, missing a shot at the Olympic podium by .09 seconds. “I failed. It’s heartbreaking,” she said, wiping away tears afterwards. “Ninth is horrible.”

In her first Games, Brittany MacLean of Mississauga, Ont., made it to the finals of the 400-m freestyle, finishing 7th. “I’m disappointed, but I just swam in an Olympic final which has been my dream forever,” said the 18-year-old. Her sights are already set on Rio 2016. If nothing untoward happens, you have to imagine that Ye Shiwen will be there too. After all, she’ll just be 20. Or maybe the Chinese will already have found another teen to take her place.