Swimming: Doubts voiced as unknown wins a gold for China
BEIJING: It did not take long for the rumors and innuendo to bubble up.
Shortly after Liu Zige touched the edge of the pool at the Water Cube on Thursday and grabbed China's first gold medal for swimming in the Beijing Olympics, the doubters began to question how an unknown 19-year-old could have shaved more than a second off the world record in the 200-meter butterfly.
It did not help suspicions that the silver medalist, Jiao Liuyang, was also Chinese.
Oh yes, and Jiao broke the world record, too.
"Until Beijing, I'd never heard of either of them - just who are they?" asked Jenny Schipper, whose daughter, the Australian swimmer Jessicah Schipper, had been the reigning world champion until Thursday. She ended up in third place behind the two Chinese swimmers.
We should be holding a higher standard for evidence and proof before allowing athletes achievements to be undermined - as fellow humans - shouldn't we be assuming good intent?
A more likely explanation, however, is that Liu is an exceedingly successful product of Project 119, the government training program that uses limitless resources and relentless training to increase the country's medal count.
Started in 2002, the program's name alludes to the additional number of gold medals China might win if it focused on sports in which it traditionally lagged.
Swimming, as it happens, was one of those sports.
Until Thursday, almost nothing was publicly known about Liu, except her age, weight and height. Since her win, however, the Chinese media has helped fill in the void, calling her story a "fairy tale of the ugly duckling."
In 2004, she was plucked from the northeastern province of Liaoning and brought to Shanghai to enter China's sports mill. Within a year, she was a promising member of the Shanghai swim team. "You never need to worry about her not practicing hard enough," her coach, Jun Wei, told the state-run China Daily newspaper.
By 2007, she had climbed to No. 22 in the 200-meter butterfly, an event that rewards brute strength and stamina. Until Thursday, she had never competed in an international meet.
Like many of her athletic peers whose life has room for sports and sports alone, Liu has been largely cut off from her friends and family. She told the Chinese media she had not been home for Spring Festival in six or seven years, and she has not seen her parents since October 2007.
Her teammates describe her as a lion in the water, but they also called her introverted and prone to sadness. One teammate, Zhao Zihan, said she often broke into tears after being scolded by her coach.
"She will not complain no matter how heavy the pressure is," Zhao said. "She will just cry out silently, or unburden herself to her parents by phone."
Other teammates said she does not own a cellphone or computer and she seldom goes shopping.
Although Jiao Liuyang, 17, the second-place winner, was a known quantity whose strong showing was expected, Liu had been largely overlooked by everyone, including her coach, who advised her to just do well Thursday. She said she never expected to come home with a medal, let alone break the world record. "I didn't feel pressure before the competition, I just tried to relax," she said afterwards.
In the end, she won in 2:04.18, shaving 1.22 seconds off Schipper's record.
Those who still doubt whether Liu's victory came naturally might recall China's previous bout with doping. In the 1994 Asian Games, Chinese women brought home 12 gold medals. Then seven of those same woman tested positive for banned substances, forcing them to relinquish their prizes. Four years later, the ignominy repeated itself, with four more swimmers disqualified.
Since then the government has been unforgiving to those who juice up.
In the past year, Zhang Yadong, the Chinese swimming team's head coach, said his charges had been training harder than ever. They saw so much potential in Liu that they flew her to Australia last year to train for a few months.
He said that if the West had never heard of Liu, it was only because she had not been ready for her moment.
Zhang expressed frustration that the world was questioning Liu and tarnishing her moment and China's glory.
"Foreigners always keep a very close eye on the Chinese swimming team for doping problems," he said. "Why do they always feel it's 'abnormal' when we do well in the pool?"