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.

Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder