Watching the new ‘Mandarin Mermaid’ glide to another suspiciously easy victory yesterday – the prelude to what will doubtless be her second gold medal of these Games – my thoughts returned to the disturbing interview I conducted with another swimming sensation many years ago.
Just like China’s Ye Shiwen, East German Petra Schneider had astonished the world in winning the 400 metres medley – this time at the 1980 Moscow Olympics – producing a performance of such awesome power that her rivals (including Britain’s Sharron Davis, who won silver) seemed to be lesser mortals.
And as with 16-year-old Ye in London on Saturday night, so striking was Schneider’s superiority over young women who had trained equally long and hard that many observers wondered how she could possibly have been so much stronger, fitter and faster.
This disquieting question cast a shadow over her achievement for 18 years. But then, during that unforgettable interview, in her cramped apartment in Chemnitz – or Karl-Marx-Stadt as it had been known when she was among the stars of the East German state swimming project – the five-time world record-holder finally came clean.
Having been identified as a potential champion as a little girl, she told me, she had been removed from school and placed in a ruthless training camp where she was identified by a number, Sportsperson 137, rather than a name.
There her every waking hour was devoted to bringing swimming glory to her country.
To increase her oxygen uptake she was forced to swim for hour upon hour in a vacuum contraption that sucked out the surrounding air; she was fed like a battery-farm turkey on a protein-rich diet; and, of course, she was injected with steroids – so frequently that, even then in her mid-30s, she suffered a plethora of health problems.
‘Sharron Davies was not racing against another swimmer that day – she was racing against a different species,’ she told me tearfully in an extraordinary mea culpa which later saw her ask for her world records to be expunged. ‘I was programmed to take the gold.’
Was the equally invincible Ye Shiwen similarly programmed? As with everyone who marvelled at the way she eased through the water yesterday, like a killer whale in her white cap and black costume, I hope — oh, how I hope — she was not.
Yet recalling the photographs Schneider had showed me of herself at a similar age, one well understands the fears voiced by America’s top swimming coach.
Indeed, they must have flashed through the minds of even the most casual spectator yesterday, so much stronger did she look than the young women beside her.
Ye Shiwen possesses that same masculine, almost wall-like figure; the same impossibly wide shoulders and huge, rounded thighs; the same armchair-leg calves. Rebecca Adlington is a strong woman, to be sure, but she still looks feminine; Ye, though barely out of adolescence, appears androgynous.
China’s recent swimming history mitigates against Ye, too.
For during recent years its swimmers and coaches have been caught cheating so many times it is difficult to keep count – and it has modelled its draconian training system on precisely that which produced Schneider and other turbo-charged East Germans before the Iron Curtain fell.
It began in the Eighties when, determined to end the nation’s perennial humiliation at major athletics and swimming championships, China’s Communist regime decreed that a generation of future champions must be harvested and honed.
To that end, school teachers were ordered to scrutinise their pupils for signs of natural sporting ability and report any child with obvious potential to regional coaches who would install them in one of 3,000 new state training camps.
According to her mother, Qing Dingyi, as quoted by the Chinese state media, little Ye ‘expressed a wish to become a swimmer at the tender age of seven’.
In truth, she was picked out because she had an unusually masculine physique with extremely large hands and long limbs: attributes at first thought best suited to a career in track and field.
After being whisked away from her modest two-bedroom apartment, in Hangzhou, a city of 6.2 million, and installed into the Chen Jingluin sports school, however, it was decided she would be best suited to swimming, and by 11 she had won her first major junior championship.
Her mother insists she and her husband, a manual worker, had always impressed on her that ‘results are not important, but you should always enjoy the taking part’. One doubts she dares voice this opinion in the presence of her daughter’s coaches.
In swimming, as in most other Olympic sports, they enforce a regime so relentlessly harsh that it has been compared, by those few Western observers who have managed to penetrate the obsessive secrecy with which it is guarded, to that in some 19th-century prisons.
Indeed, after being shown how China’s child gymnasts are trained some years ago, in his capacity as an Olympic observer, Britain’s Olympic gold-winning oarsman Sir Matthew Pinsent – a man who knows a thing or two about pushing the human body to its limits – pronounced it a ‘pretty disturbing experience’.
Children who our own sports authorities would deem far too young even to countenance focusing seriously on one sport, let alone be taken away from their parents and billeted in these boot-camps, had been driven so hard that they wept, and one claimed to have been beaten by his coach.
The International Olympic Committee promised then to investigate his claims but seven years on there is no evidence that anything has remotely changed.
Only last January harrowing photographs were posted on the internet showing Chinese children crying in pain as they were put to work.
In case they had forgotten why they were there, a large sign on the wall reminded them. ‘GOLD’ it said simply.
Virtual brainwashing of this sort is another feature of the state sports project, whose charges are taught by rote that their mission in life is to beat the Americans and all-comers to the top of the podium.
Their child stars of the future are also taught from the earliest age to deliver vapid answers to media questions – though there are signs that the current generation of Olympians, emboldened and awakened, perhaps, by increasing contact with the West via social media websites, are starting to rebel.
Indeed, this week one of Ye’s swimming team-mates, 23-year-old Lu Ying, risked serious repercussions back in Beijing by attacking China’s grindingly repetitive coaching regime and saying how much she preferred the freer, more enjoyable system in Australia, where she was permitted to train prior to the Games.
Recently, other former Chinese athletes have broken ranks, describing how they were so rigidly programmed in the sports camps that they could barely fend for themselves when their athletic careers ended, much less find jobs and integrate with their peers.
Had she not won gold, and become a pampered darling of the Communist Party, that would have been the life that awaited Ye. We are told, again by state-controlled newspapers, that she is never happier than when painting her mother’s toenails, reading detective stories, and chatting to friends on her pink mobile.
Perhaps so, but for the past six years she has lived in a Spartan dorm with five other swimming hopefuls.
At seven she could already perform 20 chin-ups – an exercise beyond the capability of most fit adults. She swims every day for several hours – only getting a break when the pool ‘needs cleaning’ according to one of her coaches, Wei Wei.
She will also have been drilled remorselessly in the niceties that can make a difference in big competition: keeping a fixed facial expression, behaving impeccably in view of the judges, showing no weakness or pain.
Her only consolation is that her diet will be far more nourishing than that of an ordinary Chinese teenager.
Food and legal supplements apart, though, the question gnaws away — is she being propelled by some other, more sinister fuel?
If so, she will join an infamous shoal of Chinese swimmers dating back to the 1994 World Aquatic championships in Rome, when their performance in winning 12 of the 16 gold medals available was attributed by state officials to ingesting an ‘ancient brew’ of toad-skin and bird’s nests.
Not long afterwards, at the Asian Games, 11 of their number tested positive for a banned testosterone and China was stripped of nine of its 23 golds.
Further scandals followed at regular intervals throughout the Nineties and 2000s, including the discovery, in 1998, of 13 vials of a human growth hormone – enough to supply the entire team – in the kitbag of a female Chinese swimmer during a routine search at Sydney airport.
That was the incident which prompted Schneider to tell me about her drug abuse, which she said had been forced on her in ignorance by her coach.
And only six weeks ago another Chinese swimmer, 16-year-old Li Zhesi, was expelled from the team after being caught using the current performance enhancing drug of choice among swimmers: a substance called EPO which boosts red blood-cells to increase oxygen uptake.
She was caught, as the Chinese will doubtless point out, by their own anti-doping agency, set up before the Beijing Games as part of an avowed intent to make them clean.
Whether or not she was a patsy, sacrificed to create an impression of vigilance so that others with better hopes of a medal in London (such as Ye) could slip through the net, as some cynics here were suggesting yesterday, remains to be seen.
As I say, I hope and pray this isn’t the case – and not only because of the damage that any exposure as a cheat would do to these Games.
When I met Petra Schneider, she was suffering from rigid musculature, which had forced her to give birth to her only child by Caesarean section, and also an irregular heartbeat, abnormally high cholesterol and constant back pain.
Having grown an Adam’s apple and developed a manly jaw, she had also been deprived of her femininity, and told me she would willingly have swapped her gold medal for Sharron Davies’s soft, feminine looks.
That is the price Sportsperson 137 paid for her moment of glory.
We must hope that the Mandarin Mermaid will never have a similar story to tell.