Eamonn McCann - Racism at the Olympics

editorial image

The London Olympics have been pock-marked by another outbreak of racist abuse of Chinese athletes.

Swimmer Ye Shiwen, 16, won two golds last week, setting a world record in the 400 metres individual medley and shaving five seconds off her own personal best. That was enough for John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, to declare her performance “unbelievable” and suggest that she must have been using banned drugs.

Leonard and others offered as clinching evidence that she had covered the last lap in 28.93, faster than Ryan Lochte taking gold in the men’s event. How could a slip of a girl swim faster than a big strong man?

Leonard probably thought on the basis of reaction to previous allegations against Chinese athletes that the slip of a girl would retreat into silence and that his abuse would stay on the record virtually unchallenged. But We wasn’t having it. She shot back on her blog: “Mr. Leonard is unprofessional. How can I be compared with Lochte? His 400 result was more than 20 seconds faster than mine and he was totally relaxed over the last part of the race - whereas I was trying my best to come from behind.

“Now that my Games are over, what I want to do is sleep. Because of doping tests and press conferences I went back to my room very late.”

She had enough spark left for a sarky sign-off: “A really big thanks to everyone for their support! Including the doubts from the Western media!”

She sounds a very plausible young one to me. And what’s more, if it matters, she was drugs-tested after both her finals and had been tested more than 30 times over the past two years and came up clean on every occasion. What more do they want?

The London Games have also see resurrection of allegations against Wang Junxia. She’s the Chinese runner who took gold in the 5,000 metres and silver in the 10,000 at Atlanta in 1996. Earlier this year, she was inducted into the World Athletics Hall of Fame. Immediately, the begrudgers and deniers were out in force, Paula Radcliffe predictably in the vanguard.

Wang was tested as regularly and as rigorously as any athlete in the world throughout her career. No evidence of wrong-doing ever emerged. Yet Ms. Radcliffe feels free now to tell journalists her inclusion in the Hall of Fame is “a cruel joke”.

At the 2003 London marathon, Radcliffe smashed all records with a time of 2 hours 15 minutes 25 seconds - the first and only time in history that the women’s mark was within 10 minutes of the men’s. To the best of my knowledge, no Chinese runner has suggested that that time wasn’t plausible - despite the fact that Radcliffe was a mere novice in the marathon at the time.

The British runner had made her debut in the distance in London the previous year, just missing the world mark. She broke the record in Chicago later the same year. And broke it again with that sensational time in 2003. Absolutely astonishing stuff. But no reason for us to believe she was “on” anything.

Any more than Paula Radcliffe has reason to believe Wang was on any banned substance.

One of my most vivid memories of athletics is of Wang rounding the final bend and drawing away from the field in the 5,000 at Atlantic, coming up the straight with a smile on her face that would have lit up a medium-sized town for a month. Commenting on RTE, Eamonn Coughlan describer her as “inscrutable”.

Aye. Inscrutable.

A couple of days later, Wang put on as brave a display of distance running as any of us has ever been able to marvel at, trying to win the 10,000 metres from the front from 5,000 out.

I recall her swaying ever so slightly coming into the last bend and the look of desperation in her eyes as the great Portuguese runner Ribeiro pounded inexorably behind. Wang had dredged up all she had to give. Ribeiro passed her in the last few strides and took the tape at 31:01:63, Wang less than a second behind

Her comment in the arena immediately afterwards was: “You cannot feel bad at being beaten by such a great athlete”. Just perfect.