Alan White's Olympic diary: The hounding of Ye Shiwen

Until proved otherwise, the Chinese swimmer's performance is a huge achievement.

Odds and Ends first, oddly

This morning a few details have come to light with regard to Tom Daley’s Twitter troll. You probably won’t have noticed them, because they only comprised a few lines in the Sun and Daily Mail. But we know Reece Messer is 17 years old, and has 10 brothers (or half-brothers). We also know his father thinks the police should have been called in, but added “He doesn’t know what he’s saying. He has ADHD but doesn’t take his medicine.” We know his mother left him at an early age. And we also know he was very likely brought up in care.

We could probably have guessed a lot of this at the time the Twitterati were gathering their pitchforks. I guess it won’t change too many people’s opinions of what constituted the right course of action. I’m not saying Mr Messer isn’t to some extent responsible for his behaviour. And I’m certainly not blaming Daley for responding the way he did. It’s just that trolling’s a weird thing to do. And with every high-profile incident and attendant moral outrage like this that passes, it always seems to end up being more complicated than the initial tweets suggest.

I guess I’m just asking this: if you see a guy with fairly obvious issues shouting things at someone in the street, do you draw attention to him as much as possible, implicitly encouraging others to abuse him back, or do you dip your head, walk on by and ignore it? But there’s a disconnect between the virtual and real world isn’t there – a crucial lack of nuance. It’s one I’d venture was forgotten about by more people than Mr Messer the night he decided to drop Daley a line.

“A mob's always made up of people, no matter what...Every mob in every little Southern town is always made up of people you know--doesn't say much for them, does it?” Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

  • To happier things. Here are gymnast Aly Raisman’s parents watching her bar routine. You must watch to the end.
     
  • To icky things, namely cyclists’ legs and the faces of Olympic divers.
     
  • You know how I was rattling on about the Olympic spirit and all that rubbish yesterday? Well, China and South Korea, this ain’t it.
     
  • Two bits of absolutely horrific heartbreak, in fencing and judo.

The hounding of Ye Shiwen

Aged 11, I was having swimming lessons at a municipal pool, when I saw some of the older boys diving off a platform. I think it was at a height of 7.5m, but if I'm honest, it was probably 5m. The teacher turned her back, so I snuck out of the pool and crept up the ladder to the board. This was going to be fun: as I'd seen, all I had to do was chuck myself off the board, keep my arms and legs close together, and bosh: instant hero to all in my class.

So I get to the end of the diving board, I look across the municipal pool, see the little specks of people swimming beneath me, at the shimmering meniscus of the water, so oddly still and taut, I put my hands together, bend slightly over the edge and... I immediately grab the hand rail and start crying, because I'm absolutely terrified. 

Worst of all, the older boys are now back on the board behind me. They're pointing and laughing at me, and I try to look away from them, but if I look away I'm reminded how high up I am, and my God I can't jump down there God no God no God no, but the older boys are now heading straight for me, and what happens next is, well, it's actually exactly what happened to Mr Bean except I also wet myself when I got back to the changing rooms and I think my parents had to pick me up early. I learned two very important lessons that day:

1) Water can actually be a very painful substance when the first thing to make contact with it is your face.
2) That was the closest I ever came to being an Olympic athlete, which means the stuff they do must be pretty incredible.

I suppose that was a very convoluted way of saying that Olympic athletes regularly do things which are so amazing as to almost be beyond our comprehension. And this is a convoluted way of saying that John Leonard, US Swimming coach, really needs to shut the hell up.

Leonard it is who's had plenty to say about Ye Shiwen, the Chinese teenager who broke the 400m Medley Record on July 28 with an incredible time of 4 minutes 28.43 seconds. And as has been reported, over and over again, in parts of it she swam faster than US champion Ryan Lochte. It's all very dodgy, right? Well, maybe.

Now I was going to interview some people and write a long and detailed piece about how, actually, her performance is incredible but not necessarily, as Leonard alleges, "disturbing", about how Ruta Meilutyte pulled off a performance not all that far away from Ye's at this very Games and yet no eyebrows have been raised - but then I stumbled across this blog which basically makes all the points better than I would, so it's probably best I just direct you there. 

One of the many dissenting voices in the face of Leonard's comments has been Ian Thorpe (I love him more by the day, more so after reading this description), who pointed out he had also improved his personal-best time by five seconds in a year during the early part of his career. I'm inclined to listen to him, as I imagine he knows his stuff, and also because I find him slightly mesmeric.

Of course Ye might have fooled the doping regime. But we know doping agencies are far better than they were back in the 1990s (when there clearly was a problem with Chinese swimmers), so is it fair for Leonard to make insinuations about a 16-year-old girl with absolutely no evidence to back his claims? As I wrote yesterday, there is no Games without trust between competitor and spectator. If there's a case to be answered, Leonard going to the media makes no difference either way. And assuming he’s wrong, it's a needless gesture that demeans the spectacle and humiliates a young lady. Way to go.

David Bond, the BBC sports journalist who's already annoyed a load of cycling fans with a similar line, told the Six O'Clock News that if Ye won the 200m individual medley by a huge margin "she'll face questions." Well, she did win: with an Olympic (not World) record, having been overtaken at one point. She should face questions, and they should be exactly the same asked of any Gold medal winner.

On the plus side the former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency has been doing some interviews about the affair. It’s always nice to see Dick Pound on the Ten O’Clock News.

UPDATE 02/08/2012 10:30:

My assertion with reference to the Tom Daley Twitter troll case that it's better to "walk on by" was poorly-worded: I was trying to emphasise my belief that no good can come of a mob retaliation towards an online abuser. There's nothing wrong with intervening, but as anywhere else, it's better done through the appropriate channels: Twitter being the obvious place to start.

Ye Shiwen poses on the podium with her second gold medal. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.