Look out world, China's in the Olympic pool

Determined to show its medal success at the Beijing Games was no fluke, China is chipping away at that bastion of U.S. sporting dominance - the Olympic pool.

Chinese and American swimmers, a new Cold War rivalry?

Chinese fans are everywhere at the London Olympics, including the Aquatic Centre. (Associated Press)

For those of us who grew up in an earlier era, the Olympic Games were all about Cold War rivalries. East versus West. Communism versus capitalism. The mighty Soviet Union and East Bloc against the just as mighty U.S. and its allies.

Today, the Cold War is over and the rivalries have shifted. The Olympics wouldn’t be the spectacle they are if nations didn’t want to best each other in sport. And right now the country looking to take on the world is China.

In these early days of the London Games, China and the United States sit atop the medal board, tied, with China holding the lead in the key category of Olympic gold.

China is an established force in sports like gymnastics, diving and table tennis. But its Chinese success in the swimming lanes that is making the biggest waves at the moment.

On the night when American super-swimmer Michael Phelps made history by winning, over the course of three Games, his 19th  medal — the most Olympic medals ever won by a single athlete — a young Chinese swimmer, Ye Shiwen, was celebrating her own stunning triumph at the Olympic Aquatics Centre.

Michael Phelps, about to anchor the U.S. men's relay team for its gold-winning swim, the event that earned him his 19th Olympic medal, the most of any athlete. (Associated Press)

Ye set an Olympic record in the women’s 200 metre individual medley and claimed her second gold medal of the Games, a victory, however, not without considerable political controversy.

The 16-year-old won her first medal  over the weekend in the 400 metre medley when she smashed the previous world record, swam faster than she ever had before and even streaked through the final 50 metres of the race faster than one of America’s top male swimmers, Ryan Lochte, had done in his event.

Suddenly, the old Cold War suspicions also shot to the fore.

Back in the days when bulked-up athletes from Communist nations, China included, were raking in Olympic medals, the widespread assumption in the West was that something was not quite right.

Doping appeared much more prevalent in '70s and '80s in particular, and Western athletes, Canada’s among them, were not immune.

Fast forward to the present day and that same skeptical eye was being cast on a young Chinese athlete who seemed to defy the laws of physics.

‘Ye is clean’

In the current context, it was perhaps not surprising that it was an American coach, John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association,  who was first to raise the Cold War ghosts.

"We want to be very careful about calling it doping," Leonard said on the weekend.

"The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, 'unbelievable’, history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved.

"That last 100m was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers."

The response from China was swift and furious. 

Xu Qi, the team leader for China’s swimming squad in London, fired back at those who would question the legitimacy of Ye’s achievements.

China's golden girl, swimmer Ye Shiwen, in the individual medley. (Associated Press)

"Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the Beiing Games and American swimmer Missy Franklin is also incredible. Why can’t China have a talented swimmer?"

Around the world, and here in London, Chinese sports fans were outraged, and took the social media universe by storm. After a few days WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, weighed in to say that Ye had never failed any of its tests.

Eventually, other coaches and swim pundits added their voices: Ye was battling from behind and with her strongest stroke when she swam that furious 50 m on the weekend; Lochte was ahead and perhaps coasting a bit in his heat.

In fairness to Ye’s critics, the Chinese do have a history of doping in the pool, including a teenage swimmer who was barred from international competition just months ago. In the case of Ye, however, there is nothing to suggest anything devious.

Lord Colin Moynihan, the chair of the British Olympic Committee this week tried to lay to rest any further controversy over Ye’s performance.

"She’s clean. That's the end of the story," he said. "Ye Shiwen deserves recognition for her talent."

China has long insisted the success of its athletes is the result of years of hard work and commitment, not cheating. And there’s no doubt the Chinese take their Olympic training seriously. The country has hired top foreign coaches and set its elite athletes abroad to train.

It also taps early into potential Olympians like Ye  — spotted by a teacher for her big hands and relatively long legs — and sends them for special training if their families agree.

China’s approach is different from the Cold War when East Bloc nations were sealed, secretive sports factories. But there are also similarities  The Soviets once hoped to prove their system and society superior to the West by excelling and beating Western nations on the playing field. 

China sees itself as a country on the rise, economically, militarily and in the field of sport. Swimming — a sport in which the United States remains dominant — is a perfect place to make a bold statement for a nation with something to prove.

Not just one girl

Ye Shiwen is not the only Chinese swimmer who was made a splash at these Games. Sun Yang became the first Chinese male swimmer to take a gold medal, winning the 400-metre freestyle with an Olympic record time and Chinese divers, not unexpectedly, won three golds in the early going.

Sun went on to anchor his team in the 4 x 100 men’s relay, the race won by Michael Phelps and Team USA. It was the first time a Chinese relay team had even qualified for a relay final. For them, a bronze medal finish was a huge success.

Four years ago in Beijing, America dominated the swim events, winning 31 medals (12 gold) to China’s six. Aussie swimmers were the second-place finishers at those Games.

Today, there is a sense that the power in the pool may be shifting and U.S. swimmers are being challenged on all sides.

Lochte, America’s newest star, was beaten at these games by French swimming sensation Yannick Agnel. On the night Phelps was setting the record for most ever Olympic medals, he had to settle for silver in the 200-metre butterfly, his signature race over the years, losing to South African Chad le Clos.

"I think swimming overall throughout the entire world has really elevated," says U.S. swimmer Caitlin Leverenz, who came third in the individual medley behind Ye Shiwen.  

"You know, in 2000, the U.S. had a medal in almost every event. I think we’re doing an awesome job here (in London) but the level of excellence has been elevated and I think it only makes us better and Australia better and China better.

"I think it just makes for a better, more competitive atmosphere, honestly."

The world may be challenging America in the pool. But it’s China, with its population, resources and single-minded determination that could pose the greatest threat to U.S. domination in the long run.

Bob Bowman, the coach who helped guide Michael Phelps to his unparalleled Olympic record acknowledges China as a rising power. "They have the population and they have the interest in doing it," says Bowen.

China’s ultimate goal, he says, is to do better in the pool than the U.S. "I don’t think they’re going to reach it. But I think that’s their goal."

At these Games, the U.S. still holds a firm lead in medals for swimming, 16 to China’s seven at end of day Tuesday. But China is clearly coming along with a strong will to win.

American swimmers have seen this before. John Naber won four gold medals and one silver for the U.S. at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, beating out swimmers from the Soviet Union and East Germany, and was in London this week to see Michael Phelps set his Olympic medal record.

China, he says, has the people and resources to devote to sport. But Naber has faith that the U.S. will remain on top.

"I don’t think that any country in the world has affection for success the way the Americans do," he says. "We are unsatisfied with silver medals if gold medals are available. And so, if the Chinese start beating us, we’re going to find a way to beat them back."