Racism, Sexism and Swimming at the London Olympics

by | 6 Aug 2012

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 furore 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 really that unprecedented.  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 forshameful 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 systemand 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.

First published on Half in Place


  1. If history is any guide, caucasians mainly europeans and americans are just too lazy to compete fairly. To compensate for their laziness and/or incompetence, they resort violence, looting, cheating, distortion of facts etc which explains why their citizens are so damn stupid about world events.

  2. The irony is the more the west fear China, the more they use nasty tricks to down play China’s strength and the more they play down china’s strength the faster China progresses in relative terms since when you underestimate your enemy, you’ll have the illusion that you’re stronger where you are not. Due to severe media censorship and distortion of facts, I see western readers getting dumber by the day. So sad.

  3. This is probably the laziest diatribe I have ever read. Accusing someone of cheating because their country has a history of doing so is not racism, being surprised by a woman far outstripping a man in a sport that favors male physiology is not sexism. It is knee jerk reactions like this couched in pseudo-intellectual language that make me hesitant to tell people I am a Marxist, for fear that they might associate me with analytical hackery like this

  4. I’m surprised this article didn’t come with a picture of the author patting herself on the back while being adored by surrounding minorities.

    When a swimmer suddenly does this well, it is natural to wonder if they’ve doped. The same thing happened to multiple gold medalist swimmer Michelle Smith in the 1996 Olympics. And oh, she’s white and from Ireland. The press and other swimmers scrutinized her. And what happened, two years later she got caught doping. The author didn’t mention it because as soon as she heard Yi was being criticized she knee-jerked a reaction of “Racism!!!!”.

    And how has Ye Shiwen done since 2012 when she came under scrutiny? How many more medals and records has she set? She did okay two years later at the 2014 Asian Games, otherwise?? Not too much.


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