The questions made you squirm. A young Chinese woman would come into the press conference, and there would be a few softballs—How did you start swimming? Where do you go to school?—but pretty soon the tough stuff would begin, and there would be no escaping. The questions would be asked in one language—say it was English—and translated into Italian and then translated into Chinese, and then come back down the same long path. Minutes would seem to stretch into grim hours.
"How do you account for the fact that female Chinese swimmers have been so successful so fast?" a reporter would ask. "Many people accuse your swimmers of doping. What do you say to this?"
Response in Chinese.
"I would like to attribute our success to the brilliant coaches we have as well as to the hard work we do," someone like Le Jingyi—world-record-setting winner of the 50-and 100-meter freestyles, member of the world-record-setting 4 X 100 freestyle and 4 X 100 medley relay teams, clearly the star of last week's VII Swimming World Championships in Rome—would reply. "I am very angry about the accusations of doping. I think the main reason is that some people are jealous."
The awkward trilingual ballet of accusation and denial never varied. The Chinese women would do wondrous things every night in the bright water of the Foro Italico pool, winning 12 of 16 events, setting five world records, and then they would sit at a table in a long, narrow room, with their yellow victory flowers in their hands, and undergo this joyless interrogation. The weeklong championships—held every four years and second only to the Olympics in importance-were supposed to be a celebration of aquatic achievement, but there was little celebration of anything. Only suspicion.