Editorial: Pride and prejudice

Published in The Hindu on August 15, 2012

Faster, Higher, Stronger may be the Olympic motto, but when 16-year-old Chinese Ye Shiwen improved her personal best by 5.36 seconds and broke the women’s 400-metre individual medley world record, there was no all round applause. Instead, some western swimming experts and commentators suspected she had used performance-enhancing drugs to help her pull off a stunning performance. The reason — she swam the last split faster than the first three, and in the last stretch of 50 metres she was faster than Ryan Lochte, the American gold medallist in the men’s 400-metre individual medley event. Many Chinese swimmers may have tested positive for doping in the past few years, but in her case the needle of suspicion refused to go away despite the post-race drug test returning negative. Ironically, not all breathtaking and unexpected wins aroused the same suspicion. Take the case of Ruta Meilutyte who won the gold medal in the 100 metres breaststroke. She is a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Plymouth, England, representing Lithuania, who came into the contest ranked 14th in the world. In contrast to Ye, “it is doubtful if any of [the other swimmers] had ever heard of her before this week,” a commentator in the Daily Telegraph noted. But “she has become one of the unexpected stars of the Olympics.” British newspapers heaped praise on her performance, but not a word on doping.

If the stark double standard displayed by the western media is not surprising, it is disturbing that Nature, one of the most reputed and respected popular science journals, also joined the chorus. The original subtitle of a news item it carried — “‘Performance profiling’ could help catch sports cheats” — which was later changed, along with Ye’s picture, was a clear give away of the intent. The story set out to “examine how science can help resolve debates over extraordinary performances.” But, much like the newspapers, it made a simplistic and scientifically invalid way of comparing the performance of the two athletes in just the last 50 metres of the race. It had cherry-picked the data, showed brazen disregard to the scientifically correct way of analysing the data, and ignored other vital details. For instance, other male swimmers too had clocked a faster speed than Lochte in that stretch of the race. As Lai Jiang from the University of Pennsylvania commented in the journal, failing to mention that Lochte was faster than Ye by 23.25 seconds overall is mischievous as it misleads the readers. Nature’s editor regretted the “absence of a more detailed discussion of the statistics,” but the regret came a week too late.