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.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.