Top 3 Things You Didn't Know About Ye Shiwen And The Rise Of Chinese Swimmers

The stellar performance and subsequent heated accusation against Chinese teen swimming sensation Ye Shiwen has been the dominant story of the London games.  

Alas, the "West" media establishment always knows what buttons to push regarding the Chinese. But I think that more than ill intentions from each side, this is a classic example where both sides have failed to see some really obvious things happening and changing in China and the world.

1. Australian Swimming Boot Camp

After Ye Shiwen's world record-breaking swim, much attention immediately gathered around doping. Whereas the reaction of many Chinese, myself included was "The Australian swimming boot camp really worked"! 

Miss Ye is one of the many Chinese swimmers who have been training intensively in various swimming clubs in Australia. It's part of a wider initiative that China embarked on to send high potential athletes overseas to further improves their prospects. Sun Yang, gold medalist of the 400m men’s’ freestyle and China's first ever-male simmer to win an Olympic medal owes much of his success to this model. And both the athletes as well as their Chinese coaches openly acknowledge this fact. 

This strategy is part of what China calls "science-driven training", a far cry from the decades-long gulag training style. Now, the Chinese national swimming team sends most of its athletes to Australia or the US for periods of training throughout the year. There has been resistance from the more conservative camp in China. But at the end, performance prevails. The Chinese know that there’s much to be learned from the places that produced Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps. That's why the Chinese women curling team won the World Championship a few years ago thanks to living and training in Canada for several years under a famous Canadian coach. 

The trans-border flow of ideas, expertise and mindset has been one of the most striking features of China for the past decade or so. Think of the millions of teens that are sent by their parents overseas to study, myself included. That's why more and more of us can understand the humor of John Stewart and calmly write a blog post about the rise of Chinese swimmers without resorting to nationalistic fervor. The world needs more people like these. 

2. Nutrition 

Not too long ago, most Chinese thought that our physical build prevented us from excelling at highly physical events like swimming. Look at the sheer difference in body mass! Well, you might notice a sea change amongst the physique of young Chinese nowadays. Better economic conditions, nutrition, and more abundant food supply all helped Chinese to be better “conditioned” to compete.

When I was a kid in the 1980's, food rationing was still a reality of life. I drank milk once a week at most because dairy products were so rare. Imagine all the missed opportunity for physical growth! That's why back then many people's first reaction to the US lifestyle was that Americans drank milk all day long and that’s why they were so tall.

Fast forward to the mid 90’s, milk had become a daily staple for many urban Chinese families with kids. That's why you see a generation of Chinese kids significantly taller and more well built than previous generations. They might strike you as looking just like the American kids. 

3. Children of the 90's 

Access to dairy products isn't the only thing that Chinese kids have nowadays. They have access to Nikes, iPads and Lady Gaga’s latest hits. That’s partly why the 90's generation (aka 90后, jiǔlínghòu, people born in the 1990's) cause great angst among older Chinese about their relatively privileged upbringing and "extraterrestrial" worldview. The rest of the world might see them just being kids. Many of the Chinese athletes at the London Olympics belong to this generation, Ye Shiwen included. Yes, they train 8 hours everyday, but they also have their own lives, hobbies and mischievous ideas.

One thing about athletes born in the 90's is their nonchalance and confidence. They blast their headphones through the roof walking into the stadium, playing with their iPhone to kill time and "want to have fun and see London" (to quote one of the synchronized divers who won gold). They don’t look or talk like they were carrying the weight of the entire nation on their shoulders. They sometimes look bewildered when old CCTV journalists interviewed them using vernacular more familiar to their parents. Case in point, "Ye Shiwen has set a great example for people in every industry and class".

So while we obsess over “did she or didn’t she”, we are missing a more worthy discussion about the incremental yet fundamental change happening in the Chinese Olympic squad and Chinese society at large. It would be wise for some to listen better and others to tell their story better.


Published by jenny @ August 01, 2012.

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