Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Ye Shiwen and Doping: You Decide

The 16 year old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen set a world record in the 400m individual medley on Monday.  Her world record swim of 4:28 and change included a final 50 that was faster than Ryan Lochte’s split during his 4:05 mark a few days earlier.  This has fueled speculation that doping drove her breakthrough performance.

Since at least the 1970s all remarkable performances, especially those by women, have been subject to suspicions about doping.  In some countries there has been so-called state sponsored doping.   Here is a link to a chilling article about doping in the former East Germany.   There has also been plenty of doping that was not state sponsored as demonstrated by this interesting list of major cases.


The arguments that Ye Shiwen is clean go something like this:

  1. She has passed multiple drug tests.
  2. The Chinese were embarrassed by doping scandals in the 90s and are out of the business.
  3. Her overall time (while spectacular) is still about 9-10% slower than Lochte’s and that is pretty much the standard male/female difference.
  4. There have been incredible performances by people who were not doping.


The arguments that make her performance suspicious are:

  1. The idea that her last 50m would be faster than Lochte’s is simply inconceivable.
  2. The Chinese have a history of organized doping.
  3. A number of women (and men) who seemed too good to be true were in fact too good to be true.  Many track and field records, especially those for women, are stuck in the 1980s and early 90s when doping control was even more beatable than it is today.  Many of the men’s records in the field events like the shot put also date from that time suggesting that doping control has gotten better.


As I pointed out in earlier posts on doping, the tests are beatable. However, it is hard to imagine that a 16 year old girl could concoct and execute a doping scheme that would beat current doping control measures on her own.  So my conclusion is that she is either legit or has been subjected to some sort of doping program without her consent and willing participation.  Ultimately the young Germans who were doped without their consent received compensation and the officials and Drs. in charge were punished.

Intentional doping by an adult is one thing, systematic doping of teenagers by adults is far worse.  Let’s hope this is not happening with Ye.

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