Less than one minute after the 16-year-old Chinese super-swimmer Ye Shiwen won the women’s 400m individual medley at the London Olympic Games on 28 July, commentators were hinting that she was a cheat.
Clare Balding, a BBC TV presenter, got the ball rolling. She turned to her co-host, the British swimmer Mark Foster, and said: “How many questions will there be, Mark, about somebody who can suddenly swim so much faster than she has ever swum before?”
Balding was suspicious because Ye had not only broken the world record by one second, but had also shaved five seconds off her own personal best time. Surely such a remarkable feat couldn’t be down to training alone, Balding hinted?
Others echoed her. British newspapers said the “Mandarin mermaid”, as Ye came to be known, couldn’t possibly be a product of old-fashioned “hard work” – there must be more to her than that, they implied, maybe something illegal and drug-related.
Then, John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, gave credence to the Ye-doubting gossip. “We want to be very careful about calling it doping”, he said. “[But the] history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, ‘unbelievable’, history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved.”
But in the case of Ye’s amazing achievements, that wasn’t the case. The World Anti-Doping Agency found that she was “clean” of drugs. Lord Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Authority, confirmed: “She is clean. That’s the end of the story.”
Sadly, it wasn’t the end of the story. Even after it was shown that Ye had indeed achieved her record-breaking feats through old-fashioned hard work, rather than through hard drugs, still there were slurs against her character and against Chinese sportspeople in general.
This time, the British media focused on the idea that Ye, like every other Chinese Olympian apparently, had been made great in “gruelling training camps”. Journalists switched from suggesting that she had become brilliant through doping to claiming that she had become brilliant by being subjected to what one British newspaper described as the “£500 million Mandarin Machine” that uses training techniques which “border on torture” in order to “spew out” more and more top athletes.
Titillating media stories about China’s “brutal training factories” have been a feature of Western media coverage of Chinese sport for many years – and so it has been during the London Games too.
Descriptions of Chinese athletes as automatons made in a factory echo the old prejudices about Far Easterners being soulless, unfeeling creatures. As John Dixon and Mark Levine argue in their new book Beyond Prejudice, there has long been a tendency in Western societies to “liken Asians to robots, automaton or machines”. That tendency has made an ugly comeback in some of the media coverage of Chinese athletes’ amazing achievements at the London Games.
In essence, some observers look upon Chinese sportsmen and women as cheats or robots, as secret drug-takers or as the products of weird training regimes that us more emotionally aware Westerners would never put up with.
Yet if the doping accusations against Ye Shiwen were false, then so are these hyperbolic claims that all Chinese athletes are “produced” in training-cum-torture factories.
In 2008, I visited Beijing’s Shichahai Sports School for children aged 6 to 18, which had produced more than 30 world-champion sportsmen and women over the past 30 years. It was far from a “brutal training camp” or heartless factory. Yes, the youngsters were put under great pressure to be the best (we used to call this “discipline” rather than “torture”), but they seemed contented and dedicated.
I watched children having academic lessons in computerised classrooms and then playing everything from basketball to ping pong in the well-equipped sports halls. It didn’t look remotely like a Dickensian hellhole, which is how such places are often depicted in the Western media.
So what is behind the claims that Chinese athletes are spectacularly different to Western ones, the idea that they are forced against their will towards victory, in contrast to the “natural-born winners” of the West?
What we have here is a very clear clash of cultures. What Western observers find most peculiar about modern-day China is that it has high expectations of young people, that it trains young people hard and pushes them to be the best they can be. The reason this seems strange to us, almost as a form of “torture”, is because those practices are increasingly frowned upon in modern Western societies.
In much of the West, particularly in Britain and America, preserving young people’s self-esteem has become the overarching aim of education and training. Many even now believe that to examine a child – to make him sit an academic test or to make him compete in sports against his peers – is to heap undue stress upon him.Some British psychologists recently proposed banning school exams for under-16s, because, they claimed, there is an epidemic of “exam stress”, with “children as young as six suffering anxiety”. Clearly, our panic about “over-testing” children has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In American schools, there are now “self-esteem programs” for children aged from 6 to 18, which, as one critic puts it, “promote self-absorption and focus on the self”. Children are encouraged to believe that they are born special, rather than becoming special through achievement, and that anything too demanding of them could potentially harm their self-esteem or make them “stressed”.
In such a climate, is it any wonder that we find ourselves confused by China, where adults have great expectations of children, of the potential sportspeople of the future, and therefore subject them to tough training and rigorous testing? It is not that China “tortures” its aspiring athletes, but rather that many Western observers now look upon old-fashioned discipline and demanding education as forms of torture.
Brendan O’Neill is the editor of the London-based online magazine spiked. He is a columnist for The Big Issue in Britain and for The Australian in Australia. He writes a daily blog for the Daily Telegraph and has written for a variety of publications in both Europe and America.