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. Continue reading