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.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt