- By Region
The astonishing performance of China’s 16-year-old Ye Shiwen in the Olympic pool on Saturday, when she swam the last 50m of her medley faster than the men’s champion, aroused shock, awe – and suspicions of doping.
The backlash against her achievement quickly triggered a more powerful backlash in her favour. After Ye’s second gold medal on Tuesday, the consensus among experts is that she is “clean”, says John Brewer, a board member of UK Anti-Doping and sports science director at the University of Bedfordshire.
“The drug testing procedures at the London 2012 Olympics are extremely rigorous and the storage of samples for eight years after the games makes doping a very high risk strategy,” says Prof Brewer. “It is also worth remembering that China has a vast pool of talent to choose from, due to the size of its population, so we should not be too surprised when an individual with exceptional talent emerges.”
Ye’s achievement is also raising questions about the physiological differences between male and female sports stars, whether women can catch up with men in some sporting endeavours and, more generally, about how far athletic performances can improve in the years ahead.
The performance gap between the sexes has been narrowing in most sports for years – a reflection of the fact that “many countries have only recently begun to take the female side of sport seriously and to offer women training and other facilities that come close to those available to men”, says Chris Cooper, head of sports science research at the University of Essex.
There is scope for further narrowing of the performance gap, he adds, because, even in advanced countries, women are still less likely than men to take part in competitive sports.
But experts say differences between the male and female physiology are too great for the gap to disappear, except in freak circumstances such as Saturday’s swimming race. “I am certain that neither Ye nor any other female swimmer will break the current men’s world record in her event,” says Prof Brewer.
Men’s hearts pump more blood per beat, their lungs take in more oxygen per breath, their blood carries more oxygen and their muscles are more powerful.
In swimming women do have one minor advantage – their bodies are more buoyant so they have to expend less energy keeping afloat – but this does not compensate for the disadvantages.
Swimming, compared with land-based athletics, is notable for the pace at which both sexes have improved over the decades. Although there has been a slight blip in the upward trend, after super-light plastic swimming skins were banned in 2010, the records are beginning to fall again.
Today’s best female swimmers are as fast as their male counterparts of the 1960s and, looking back from the 2060s, Ye is likely to seem a slowcoach.