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 Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.