Watching the new ‘Mandarin Mermaid’ glide to another suspiciously easy victory yesterday – the prelude to what will doubtless be her second gold medal of these Games – my thoughts returned to the disturbing interview I conducted with another swimming sensation many years ago.
Just like China’s Ye Shiwen, East German Petra Schneider had astonished the world in winning the 400 metres medley – this time at the 1980 Moscow Olympics – producing a performance of such awesome power that her rivals (including Britain’s Sharron Davis, who won silver) seemed to be lesser mortals.
And as with 16-year-old Ye in London on Saturday night, so striking was Schneider’s superiority over young women who had trained equally long and hard that many observers wondered how she could possibly have been so much stronger, fitter and faster.
This disquieting question cast a shadow over her achievement for 18 years. But then, during that unforgettable interview, in her cramped apartment in Chemnitz – or Karl-Marx-Stadt as it had been known when she was among the stars of the East German state swimming project – the five-time world record-holder finally came clean
Having been identified as a potential champion as a little girl, she told me, she had been removed from school and placed in a ruthless training camp where she was identified by a number, Sportsperson 137, rather than a name.
There her every waking hour was devoted to bringing swimming glory to her country.
To increase her oxygen uptake she was forced to swim for hour upon hour in a vacuum contraption that sucked out the surrounding air; she was fed like a battery-farm turkey on a protein-rich diet; and, of course, she was injected with steroids – so frequently that, even then in her mid-30s, she suffered a plethora of health problems.
‘Sharron Davies was not racing against another swimmer that day – she was racing against a different species,’ she told me tearfully in an extraordinary mea culpa which later saw her ask for her world records to be expunged. ‘I was programmed to take the gold.’
Was the equally invincible Ye Shiwen similarly programmed? As with everyone who marvelled at the way she eased through the water yesterday, like a killer whale in her white cap and black costume, I hope — oh, how I hope — she was not.
Yet recalling the photographs Schneider had showed me of herself at a similar age, one well understands the fears voiced by America’s top swimming coach.
Read the rest at The Daily Mail