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Mary T. Meagher, one of the greatest swimmers in U.S. history, watched Ye's 400 IM at her home outside Atlanta and was instantly suspicious. "It's really hard to swallow that she went faster than Ryan Lochte in that last 50. I don't know how she did," the 47-year-old Meagher said. "I don't want to be cynical, but my last Olympics, in 1988, was when the Chinese were all doped and sounding just like the East German women in the locker room; they all sounded like men. That left a bad taste in my mouth."
But the next morning Meagher had a tempering thought: What about me? A massive jump in time is not rare for young swimmers, and between 13 and 14 Meagher improved by 10 seconds in the 200 butterfly. At 16, like Ye, she astonished the swim world by breaking her world 100-fly record by more than a second. "I can still remember what it's like to swim almost a perfect race and feel like I was still getting faster at the end just as she did," Meagher said.
Ye has never tested positive, and both she and Sun have spent extended periods training with renowned Australian coach Denis Cotterell, who last week told a TV station in his country that he was "100 percent certain" that Ye was clean. The argument for her innocence received another boost last Friday, when 15-year-old American Katie Ledecky shaved five seconds off her personal best—for a total of 11 seconds cut in the last month—to win the 800 free in the second-fastest time ever (8:14.63). Yet that performance inspired just one doping question, five fewer than at Ye's press conference.
"It's totally false," Ledecky said of any suspicion about her time. "I just put in a lot of hard work this year—that's all I've been doing—just progressively setting with my coach short-term goals and long-term goals, taking time off progressively."
Leonard's cellphone mailbox was full as of Monday. He still hadn't weighed in on Ledecky, but you can be sure the members of China's delegation are waiting. In the meantime they'll tell you that Ye and Sun are merely the latest results of Project 119, a decade-long plan to cultivate athletes in sports in which China has not traditionally done well. They'll also tell you that it's no coincidence that the U.S. lashed out about China's underage gymnasts in 2008 and its star female swimmer in London. Gymnastics and swimming are marquee Olympic sports for the U.S., unlike table tennis and many other Chinese strengths.
"Big countries like China and the United States, both have national pride," Yao said. "It's hard to face losing, particularly in sports where [you've been] dominant for a long time and there's a guy who sticks out and says, 'Hey! You're an old man!' It's hard to take that."
China's populace was less understanding; Yao's broadcast partner, Yu Jia, said that a Chinese TV personality had publicized Leonard's e-mail address and "a billion people" had bombarded it with complaints. Yao wasn't pleased either. "[Ye is] only 16 and a very simple girl who just came out and dreamed about swimming and competing in the Olympics," he said. "To put all the stress on her is unfair. One question? I can handle that. But more questions, and after she passed the drug tests? That's something we have to fight against."
Ye herself took a swing. In her farewell tweet to London she wrote, "Many thanks for everyone's support! Including the doubts from the Western media!"
Sun didn't bother with sarcasm. All the hits China's Olympians had taken had burrowed under his skin. "How would you feel?" he asked.
When he touched the wall at the end of the 1,500, it all emerged: fatigue, relief, fear and anger. Eight times Sun pounded the water with his fists, screaming, looking like a brat in a bath. Then his eyes filled, and he began to sob and—just like that—he became the face of a nation.