Sexism, Racism, And Swimming At The London 2012 Olympics

by Guest Contributor Sarah Keenan, originally published at Half in Place

I’ve been a little taken aback this week at the level of racism against China in the British and US media, and on longer-than-usual comment threads on various friends’ Facebook walls. I mean, I know that racism in sport and in the media is nothing new, and I know that being mixed-race white-Chinese, I’m taking the various swipes being thrown at Chinese athletes particularly personally. But still, the obsessive furor that has surrounded the 16 year-old swimmer Ye Shiwen has brought out so many hackneyed Orientalist stereotypes, it would be boring if it wasn’t so hurtful and infuriating.

For anyone who’s been asleep this past week, Ye Shiwen broke the 400 metre individual medley world record, breaking her own personal best time by 5 seconds and powering home in the last 100 meters to take gold in the event. In fact she swam so fast to the finish line that, as has been cited by countless commentators, her split time for her final 50 meter lap was 0.17 of a second faster than that of Ryan Lochte, the US swimmer who won the equivalent men’s event the night before. But rather than congratulating this young woman on an amazing swim and celebrating the small shifts happening to move swimming ever-so slightly away from being the white-dominated sport that it is (I think only rowing has a less diverse group of competitors), Ye immediately became the subject of doubt and speculation. Top US coach John Leonard described Ye’s win as ‘unbelievable’, ‘disturbing’ and ‘suspicious‘, BBC commentator Clare Balding turned to her co-commentator and asked ‘How many questions will there be, Mark, about somebody who can suddenly swim so much faster than she ever has before’, and so began a week of intensive media speculation over whether Ye was doping.

Now like all Olympic medallists, Ye has been tested for banned substances, and has come up clean. But that’s not enough for thousands of armchair commentators who have suddenly become self-appointed experts on what could possibly be the ‘natural’ physique and capabilities of a Chinese girl. The fact that Ye, a young woman, had one lap faster than male Lochte has been bandied around as evidence that she was doping, ignoring the fact that overall Ye’s time for the 400 meters was still over 20 seconds slower than Lochte’s, and that it’s not humanly impossible for women to swim faster than men sometimes. The Daily Mail jumped on board to assert that Ye has an ‘unusually masculine physique’ in an article in which the journalist seems to refer to China and East Germany almost interchangeably. There is of course no denying that Chinese swimmers were involved in drug scandals in the 90s, but to assume Ye is doping because (a) she swum fast and (b) she is Chinese is racism at its most plainly obvious.

Denying allegations of racism, John Leonard and others have argued that their suspicions are not due to Ye’s race or nationality but simply the cold hard facts of “the way she won the race.” Ye’s swim was “an anomaly” that needs to be pointed out and questioned, they assert, ignoring the fact that every world record breaking swim is, by definition, an anomaly. No woman in history has ever swum that race that fast before, it was “an outrageous performance”, Leonard asserts, “unprecedented in any way, shape or form in the history of our sport.” Well, yes sweet pea, on the one hand, that’s what a new world record is, and then on the other, it is not that outrageous. Ye only broke the world record by 1 second, and even at the age of 16 she has been swimming internationally for some time already. Leonard claims that Ye’s improvement of 5 seconds over 400 meters makes her swim suspicious, yet young swimmers often take chunks of time off their personal bests–as a teenager Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe also took 5 seconds off his personal best over 400 meters at the 1999 Pan Pacific championships, and just last night 15 year-old US swimmer Katie Ledecky took almost 10 seconds off her personal best to win the 800 meters freestyle. Yet Leonard is not raising any suspicions there.

But were any of Ledecky’s laps faster than a man’s? Well, it is more difficult to work out because the distance pool swim for the men is 1500 meters rather than 800 meters, so there’s no direct comparison to draw from. It would be well within the mathematical capabilities of the “sports scientists,” coaches, journalists and other commentators to work out her comparative lap speeds, but we won’t know because they won’t bother because Ledecky is not Chinese. She’s white American, and they are supposed to take chunks off their personal bests, break records, and win gold medals. For them, it’s just natural.

And while such sexism and racism is relatively predictable from the tabloid press and bitter US coaches, the more liberal media and all kinds of “sports scientists” came out publicly raising their well-educated eyebrows over Ye’s performance and analysing her race down to her last stroke. I can guarantee you that Ledecky’s swim will not come under anywhere near the level of scrutiny as Ye’s. Of course, I have no idea whether either of them are on drugs. Both their tests have come up negative but it’s possible that they might still be found positive in years to come as technologies catch up with each other. But I’m no more suspicious of Ye than I am of Ledecky, or of any Olympic athlete for that matter. And whatever happens from here, the level of quasi-scientific objectification of Ye’s body and performance that has already taken place (overwhelmingly by white men), is overtly reminiscent of an Orientalism that has formed the basis for shameful histories of sexual violence and racism.

Unable to offer any actual evidence that Ye was doping, media attention turned to her training regime. Whereas sports enthusiasts generally pride themselves on how hard “their” athletes train and how much they want to win it “for team GB/Australia/ team USA/insert country here,” the Internet was suddenly full of scathing attacks on what, having never been to China and having no understanding of Chinese culture, they assumed Ye’s tortuous training regime and nationalist indoctrination to be. Images from a Chinese article about unhappy children at gymnastic training camps were taken out of context by western journalists to prove how heinous and inhumane the “brutal training camps” of China really are. Whereas identifying sporting potential at an early age and receiving a sport scholarship to live and train at a specialist institute is held in the highest prestige in Australia, the US, and other western countries, the same practices in China were deemed barbaric, heartless, and reflective of China’s vicious one-party “totalitarian” regime.

Now, I don’t have room here to go into the details of the Chinese political system and the life chances or “happiness levels” of an average Chinese citizen compared to citizens of multi-party western states. But no one reacted to Michael Phelps’ highly anomalous 17 Olympic gold medals by opening up a debate about the various problems of the US political system and the desperate measures that US athletes go to in the hope of Olympic glory. And at any rate, anyone who thinks human rights violations and standards of living are significantly worse in China than they are in, for example, the US, needs to have a critical think about the criteria they are using to make those judgements. None of this is to say that they aren’t massive problems with the Chinese state but, ultimately, it has to be asked why it is that when a young Chinese woman wins an event in a white-dominated sport, white men the world over feel both the need and entitlement to prove that she must have either been cheating or that she’s subject to a tortuous training regime unthinkable in the liberated west. So, true to every bad Hollywood movie you have ever watched featuring an Asian woman, she must either be a villain or a victim. In actual fact, Ye Shiwen is the hero in this story, and it’s about time we let her have the credit she deserves for playing that role in these Olympics.

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  • Anonymous

    I see the author’s point. I wish I’d seen this article before.

    However, the first I’d heard about Ye Shiwen was when she was compared to Michelle Smith(an Irish swimmer), who’d had similar allegations made about her in the 1996 Olympics. This was in NBC’s coverage of the games. I know the comparisons to Michelle Smith were made in other media outlets as well.

    Had the author not heard of Michelle Smith, or just decided not to include the comparisons?

  • Jeff

    Cheaters come in all shapes and sizes. And let’s be realistic: there have been so many cheaters in so many sports, it’s hard not to be suspicious of anyone who performs at a level “too good to be true.” Whether it’s Mark McGwire, Marion Jones, or even golden boy Lance Armstrong, I feel like you’re begging to be a sucker these days if you accept all of these achievements blindly.

    Also, re: drug tests, the aforementioned Marion Jones didn’t get caught for her 2000 doping until 2007.

    I probably shouldn’t be so cynical about athletes, but their peers from years passed who’ve tried to defraud the system and tainted sports really ruined it for me, and whenever someone does something exceptionally, I greet it with general skepticism. Remember, these guys aren’t just crushing all the athletes who played fair. They’re crushing the cheaters, too, supposedly without the benefit of cheating themselves.

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  • Rahela Choudhury

    Great article and very true about the ridiculous amount of negative coverage this young woman received due to some sore losers.

  • charmonium

    Interesting post.

    The bbc’s “more or less” statistic’s podcast (starts at 1min45 or read it here gives an interesting analysis comparing this to other records, concludes that whilst it’s impressive, it’s not implausible. They don’t talk about the racism and sexism involved in the row though. To summarise what they said:
    – Shiwen beat her personal best by 5 seconds, but improvements are expected among swimmers this young. Shiwen’s grown 12cm in the last 2 years. When Stephanie Rice set the world record in 2008 she beat her personal best by 6 seconds.
    – In the last length she was swimming faster than Lochte (28.93s vs 29.10s), but as you say, her overall time was slower, and leg time depends on pacing. Lochte’s final leg was not that impressive. Shiwen had to catch up a lot towards the end, whereas Lochte was already well ahead, and may have been saving himself for the three races he had the next day. Some of the other men in that same race swam the final leg faster than both him and Shiwen. In the world championships of the 800m freestyle last year, Rebecca Adlington swam a last leg of 28.91s: faster than either of Lochte’s or Shiwen’s’.
    In fact, one of the analysts thought that if Shiwen starts to pace herself more evenly, she could perhaps go a second-and-a-half or two seconds faster. That would be amazing to watch.

    While we can never know for sure that there’s no doping, it’s really sad that her victory is being sullied by these spurious speculations, while white swimmers are given the benefit of the doubt.

  • Emperor

    As a Muslim, I can draw an analogy with the problem of sex predators preying on young children in the UK. A few years ago, there were incidences of Muslim, brown men being charged with the vile practice. The media exploded, jumping into all sorts of conclusions about how it were facets of out Islamic/South Asian culture which gave rise to this problem.
    Later, many more men were discovered to be part of the same ring. This time, they were all white. Needless to say, there was no mention of how perhaps certain ailments of Western culture could’ve caused this. It’s double standard is what it is.

  • Montclair Mommy

    You said it. Ledecky’s win was “awesome” and praised, but Ye’s is somehow suspicious. Ridiculous.

  • HapaMama

    I was watching this particular Olympic coverage at the airport, and shocked by it as well. First of all, the broadcaster kept referring to Ye Shiwen as “that Chinese swimmer” as if he couldn’t be bothered to pronounce her name. A black male athlete was interviewed and he urged people not to jump to conclusions and you could hear an audible groan in the waiting room, as if nobody believed him either.

  • Ally

    I have read that there were questions asked about whether Ledecky was doping. But then, that news story was on BT Yahoo, so it’s not the most reliable source.

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  • Anonymous

    Chinese folks here are angry beyond belief at this and other commentary about Chinese athletes. The racism is so obvious. No one ever questioned how Mr. Phelps could swim so well. Just this poor girl (I think of what should be the happiest days of her life instead being ruined by Mr. Leonard and others, they are disgusting beyond belief). No one is questioning the bicyclists, and if there is any sport that has more doping than bicyclists, I don’t know what it is. China is a rising power, and this does frighten people. Alas, the poor Chinese want to run out into the world and love it and be loved. But they learn when they get there. It reflects poorly as racism and for political reasons. Great article, well put. I am amazed at how many white people come here and want to talk about human rights in China, but get really put off when their own countries racism is questioned. And there was the boorish behavior of the American basketball team towards the Nigerians. ARRRGHGHGH (I blame the coach). Anyway, I am glad there is Racialicious to try and set things straight!!! Thanks guys.

  • Digital Coyote

    I think there are two sources for the suspicion of Ye Shiwen that need to be teased apart:

    A. The “what are they going to cheat in next” which is logical after the issues surrounding China’s gymnasts at the 2008 games and the tepid response from the pertinent governing bodies out of fear of reprisal for “embarrassing” the host country. It is unfortunate that Ye’s legitimate achievement is called in to question because of her government’s actions, but to many people–rightly or wrongly– her path to competition was controlled by those same officials. I understand that the official line from the IOC and FIG were that they had to go by the documents presented to them, but they get serious side-eye for that when there was widely available material that could cast doubt on the veracity of those documents. If anything, they need to be dogged harder than China because they’re responsible for making sure the faintest whiff of controversy does not taint the games.

    B. A very specific kind of Western nationalism that leans heavily toward unflinching support of white athletes over others (even their own teammates) that is allowed to leak out every two years, the gap between winter and summer games. Notice no one is crying foul after South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh said he–and many of his competitors–were cheating by using extra physical action (not drugs that could potentially improve physical action under the right conditions) that is real and observable on the underwater cameras to gain an edge. I would also look at how Gabby Douglas’ teammates were hyped over her despite the integral part she played in the team gold win as well as her individual all-around achievement in addition to faux drama generated over her hair, her parents’ financial situation, and not winning every individual event. How can she be fully responsible for a third of the team’s points by herself, but the top story is the shoulda/coulda/woulda about her teammates who failed to perform when it counted?

    I think people can reasonably fall in to the A group without being involved with group B but more often than not group B is using group A’s reasoning to mask its real feelings and fears about not being the best at something, which is racist. Group A people that assume cheating is the sole domain China (or non-Western countries or those where the majority is not white) while ignoring what happened last century and still happens in Western countries are racist.

    I have to wonder if Ye is threatening in the way Castor Semenya was threatening: not only is she making the white participants of both sexes look bad, but she’s chipping at the pedestal of male supremacy by being operating at or above the level of a highly lauded man in a specific moment where the whole world is supposed to be watching him in awe, and disturbing conventional Western wisdom regarding women of her background. She’s clean for everything for which she has been tested and people need to leave her alone. If something happens to bring suspicion on her a la Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong, or that rainbow coalition of MLB luminaries who testified before Congress, the issue should be revisited then.

    In the meantime, they really ought to start testing everyone all the time as a matter of standard procedure instead of leaving this out there as a weapon. Some people are just that fast/strong/flexible/etc. and that’s how they got to the Olympics.

    • Anonymous

      I want to respond to the A group issues. I mainly remember age issues around the Chinese female gymnastics team, mostly along the lines of “she looks too young” from white people who had suddenly become experts on the appearance of Chinese females and how they are “supposed to look”. It struck me as racist then, and still does. If there were “legitimate” issues, I missed them. A lot of Americans look at China through red white and blue colored glass lenses (communist = slaves = demons = evil = nothing good can ever be said), and this tends to taint all discussions about China. I urge readers here to search for original sources on China (Chinese writers, in translation, who still live there) to get a clearer picture. It is a big and diverse country, that is often portrayed very simply in the West (and inaccurately). Given the changing nature of the world, we need more serious understanding and learning. There is no “Chinese government” that controls everything, believe it or not!

      • Digital Coyote

        China has been caught fielding underage competitors before:

        In 2010, the IOC finally got around to stripping China of its bronze gymnastics team medal from the 2000 games because they used a 14 year old in competition.

        The suspicion of at least a third of the 2008 gymnastics team arose because of a. issues around the 2000 team and b. information from official state media (unless, of course, you’re suggesting that China Daily [the Chinese government’s official English newspaper isn’t an original source or trustworthy]), the national gymnast registry (the governing body of which has a legitimate interest in making sure they are eligible for competition so as not to be embarrassed again), and interviews the girls themselves (call me naive, but I trust people to know how old they are in most circumstances) gave was consistently in conflict with what was presented on official documents at the Olympics.

  • lilacsigil

    Great article. The Age newspaper in Australia was particularly frustrating because it printed both stories about Ye as a terrible cheater/tortured victim AND stories about the media being racist against Chinese swimmers when the Australian world champion Ye had beaten took even more time off the world record when she won. Best of both worlds for the newspaper.

  • Anonymous

    Great article. When white Americans do something great, like breaking
    Olympic records, or people of color commit crimes, it is supposed to
    reflect on their backgrounds. When white people are mass shooters or
    people of color do something great, it is due to some dangerous anomaly.

  • Anonymous

    Given the fact that there are performance-enhancing drugs being produced that cannot be detected with the current testing, record breaking performances of white and non-white athletes should be viewed with suspicion. There were similar accusations thrown at East German swimmers in the ’70s. When the Berlin Wall came down, it was revealed that the government was systematically doping athletes at a young age in order to enhance their performance. Those accusations were eventually vindicated. The fact is, there is a lot of cheating in the Olympics. Except when white people do it, it’s not looked at the same way. Those East German swimmers are now perceived as unwitting victims, not as evil white cheaters. Record breaking Chinese swimmers are perceived as a willing participants in a massive Communist-created sports machine that churns out PED enhanced record breakers that undermine the Olympic “ideal”. It never occurs to anyone to think that the parade of record breaking swimmers produced in America are cheating. Such is the way of our “post racial” world.

  • Jay

    I think there are quite a few factors that feed into each other. Fear of Chinese government policies is intensified by fear of what is foreign and unfamiliar – racially, culturally, even linguistically. Very few non-Chinese Americans know a single word of Chinese language, which I think makes China seem even more frightening and unknowable to them.

  • imnotasquirrel

    Actually, none of Shin’s previous hits were thrown out. What happened was that the clock malfunctioned and gave the German fencer (Heidemann) extra time to register a hit. Heidemann would have lost otherwise. The ref was also grossly incompetent and didn’t bother keeping track of the time in her head, the way most refs do because the timers don’t actually register anything less than a whole second IIRC. The ref also didn’t bother to enforce the rules, so she let Heidemann cross forward before she was supposed to, meaning that Heidemann didn’t have to cross as great a distance to strike at Shin. Basically, Shin got screwed. And the FIE actually went as far as offering her a “consolation medal” to recognize her sportsmanship, so even they know they messed up, even though they won’t admit it.

    • Reader

      Thanks! I only read about the problem from second-hand sources, and as such wasn’t fully clear.

      • imnotasquirrel

        No problem. I was so angry when that happened. LOL. It did have a silver lining, though – the travesty lit a fire under the rest of the Korean fencing team’s butts, and they went on to win a bunch of other medals, more than they ever have before. And Shin ended up winning a silver medal in the team event, so at least she didn’t walk away empty-handed!

    • happyappa

      I am so glad she did not accept the “special” consolation medal. So sorry, we made a mistake, here’s a medal to make us feel better!

      • imnotasquirrel

        Yep, it came across as so patronizing. And then she went on to win a real Olympic medal too, which made it even better.

        The FIE really needs to take a long hard look at their rules if something like THIS can stand. I’ve heard from epee fencers that the officials actually made the right call because they have to abide by the ref’s decision, but if that’s true then the rules themselves are messed up.

  • a.eye

    LOVE this post!! So true about the racism. I don’t think that Americans realize all of the human rights violations occurring in this nation daily.

    • RMJ

      As a American, /agreed. The problem is that we are amazingly indoctrinated in this country. If you don’t believe in American Exceptionalism, you are considered a bad American. So many people are so used to being on top, on seeing themselves as a shining beacon of democracy, that it’s taking a long time for people to go ‘oh, wait! Other countries are pretty cool too!’ See- how the biggest slam against Obama right now is that is believes in “European Socialism”. The only time we really hear about other countries on our regular news is when something horrible happens there, and most bad press about the USA is swept under the rug or somehow justified in the news. Like, “Some say the protesters were getting violent.” to justify excessive police force. People don’t want to face our problems, because that would be admitting we aren’t Exceptional any more.

      • @mezz98

        Yes, this. I am always amused when people mention the Chinese government indoctrinating the people of China. Yes, because no indoctrination of any kind ever happens here? *rme*

  • yazikus

    Was this the match where the clock malfunctioned?

  • yazikus

    I watched a piece about Chinese Olympians on Al Jazeera, and it was very interesting. One thing they brought up was how awful it was that in the past Chinese athletes did not have medical insurance (they do now). Funny though, millions of americans are uninsured, and many loathe the idea of universal health care.
    ETA: I found this to be a very thoughtful & poignant piece and am glad to see these issues being brought up.

  • Kate S.

    It’s because she is from the wrong country, you see (sigh). I wonder what is more important: (media-bullshit-wise important, I mean) her Asianess or her non American/Accepted country-ness (I know it’s both, but still) .
    And then people ask me why I am against nationality based sport competitions. Too much politics and mad level of ethnocenrism for supposedly non-political events.

    • happyappa

      I totally agree. The Olympics is a piece of trash that thinks a winner cheats if they don’t fit the “right mold” (ex. White American male) — Ye’s performance and “disturbing, outrageous” reactions are proof of that.