The London 2012 Olympics (here I am possibly breaching copyright, just using the term) offer the usual sporting rivalry that is mixed with a wide range of national prejudices. Most interesting is how major powers look upon the medals table as a signal of relative strength in the wider world, with all the risk that the ranking upsets their view of who is really in charge.
This is the backdrop to the western media attack on the 16-year old Chinese girl swimmer, Ye Shiwen, who swam 'too fast'. A US coach made a big point of doubting that her speed could have been achieved by normal training methods. The implicit suggestion was that there had been the use of performance-enhancing drugs, despite the fact that the Olympics now enforces strict testing and, in the latest (and previous) tests, she has been declared 'clean'. So then the UK media discussion turned to the possibility that the inscrutable and devious Chinese were using special drugs that had escaped the testing regime. This is an excellent ploy - the fact that you cannot find the drugs used only shows how devious they are! The lack of evidence is evidence. In the event that this ploy does not work, one news programme today on the BBC included a report suggesting that 'genetic manipulation' might have been used to enhance her performance, and this cannot be picked up by the tests on athletes currently used. Some sports commentators have pointed out that it is common for teenagers, like Ye Shiwen, to improve their performance dramatically over a year or two, given good training, but this gets little coverage.
In my view, this is another sign of imperial anxiety: by the US at China's rise, and by the UK because its fortunes in the world economy are tied very closely to US power. After the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the US media promoted the idea that they had won because they had won the most medals. This was true because the US had a tally of 110 medals versus China's 100, except for the awkward fact that China had won 51 gold medals versus 36 for the US. So far in London, China has the same number of medals, but still more golds. With the size of the Chinese economy now rivalling that of the US - depending on how you count the GDP! - it is not such a wonder that a 16-year old girl has become the focus of imperial propaganda.
Tony Norfield, 31 July 2012