When Chinese swimmers started blowing rivals out of the water in London's Olympic pool, whispers quickly followed. Is China cheating the sport again, as it did in the 1990s, when drug-fueled, muscle-bound swimmers emerged from nowhere to beat the world? Alain Bernard, the 2008 Olympic freestyle champion from France, was among those who wondered.
"I'm for clean sport, without doping, and I truly hope the authorities in charge of this are doing their job in good conscience and really well," he said. "Unfortunately, I want to say that there is no smoke without fire. But today there is no proof to show that any Chinese has tested positive in this competition."
At a briefing Monday in London, reporters peppered Arne Ljungqvist, the International Olympic Committee's medical commission chairman, with questions about Ye Shiwen, China's 16-year-old swimming sensation.
"Suspicion is halfway an accusation that something is wrong," Ljungqvist said. "I don't like that. I would rather have facts."
On Tuesday, the IOC again sprung to Ye's defense, saying she passed a drug test after her world record win in the 400 medley. IOC spokesman Mark Adams urged people to "get real" and said it is "very sad" if great performances cannot be applauded. IOC defends Chinese swim star Ye Shiwen amid doping speculation
Unlike the 1990s, however, there are plausible explanations this time for why China is the swimming phenomenon of the 2012 Games.
For example, Ye's astounding world record in the 400 medley, when she swam the last 50 meters faster than American Ryan Lochte did in winning the equivalent men's race, isn't solely attributable to her large hands and feet. It also is at least partly because China, which has grown to become the world's second-largest economy, now throws big checks at some of swimming's sharpest minds. China has turned to foreign trainers to get their coaching programs, expertise and methods, not only to hone its swimming stars but to make them more rounded and relaxed, too. The idea is that happy swimmers are fast swimmers.
Ye has trained in Australia with two well-recognized coaches, Ken Wood and Denis Cotterell. Wood has had a contract with the Chinese Swimming Association since 2008, and 15 of China's swimmers in London, plus five of its relay swimmers, have trained at his academy north of Brisbane, rotating through in groups for a couple of months at a time, he told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
Gaston Reiff of Belgium stands on the winner's block after the 5,000 meters, London, 1948.