DIRTY OR NOT, here she came. No Olympic moment is uglier than the press conference after a drug rumor gains traction, and now, into a packed room of reporters, stepped 16-year-old Ye Shiwen. The three days since the Chinese swimmer's spectacular finish in the women's 400-meter individual medley on July 28 had been marred by American accusation and Chinese rage, and she had just set an Olympic record in the 200 IM to win her second gold. But Ye wasn't smiling. The picture of contentment after her victory in the 400, she seemed much older now.
The first question mentioned "the speculation" and whether it was "unfair," and the second danced a bit before settling on how she handles such "criticism," but at last a reporter got to the point and asked if she had ever used banned performance-enhancing substances. "Absolutely not," Ye said, staring. Someone else asked if she agreed with the theory of China's antidoping chief, Jiang Zhixue, that critics were "biased" against Chinese athletes at the 2012 London Games.
"I feel the same. They are biased," Ye said. "Because other countries, other swimmers, have won multiple gold and no one has said anything. How come people would criticize me?"
So went China's herky-jerk march to Olympic dominance last week: one step victorious, the next aggrieved. China led the U.S. in overall medals 64--63 through Monday, but quantity meant less than quality; a week after becoming the first Chinese male to win an individual swimming gold medal, in the 400 freestyle, 20-year-old Sun Yang earned his second last Saturday, winning the 1,500 free in 14:31.02 to shatter his own world record by 3.12 seconds. And in between those happy bookends the Chinese delegation bristled as much with defensiveness as it did with pride.
"Are we the target?" asked Yao Ming, China's icon and now a CCTV basketball commentator. "Good question."
His country has been taking hits since July, when U.S. politicians knee-jerked a few kicks at Team USA for sporting Chinese-made apparel in the opening ceremony. That was the cheapest of shots; there's scarcely a congressman's closet that doesn't harbor imported garb, and the days have long passed when Made in China automatically meant suspect quality.
Once the Chinese reached London, however, their sports machine seemed to jam as often as it hummed. On Aug. 1 world champion women's badminton players Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang were jeered and disqualified—along with pairs from South Korea and Indonesia—for making near-comical efforts to throw matches to gain a more favorable draw in the next round. Last Thursday, Chinese track cyclists Gong Jinjie and Guo Shuang broke the world record twice in the team sprint yet lost the gold when officials said they had left too soon on a changeover.
When the 6'6" Sun apparently jumped the gun in the 1,500 after a stray word from the P.A. announcer, another odd disaster seemed at hand. Instead he was allowed to remount, then set a furious pace and, with his rivals trailing by a quarter of a pool length, finished like Secretariat tearing down the Belmont stretch. "At that moment I was so scared. It was all blank before my eyes," Sun said of his seeming false start. "But the last 50 meters I knew that I would break the record. I knew I still had a reserve. I did not push my body to its limits."
That's scary talk for Sun's future competitors, but Ye's 400 IM performance was even more impressive. With a time of 4:28.43 she crushed the world record by 1.02, beating her previous best—set on Oct. 21, 2011, in Guangzhou, China—by 5.23 seconds. And her freestyle speed over the race's final 50 meters was faster than that of men's 400 IM gold medalist Ryan Lochte. "The splits are off the charts," said 1992 U.S. bronze medalist Summer Sanders. "As a 400 IMer? I dream of having a freestyle like that."
TWO DAYS after Ye's stunning performance John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, publicly speculated that the race was too good to be true, calling Ye's improvement "unbelievable" and "disturbing" and suggesting that her final leg was reminiscent of performances by East German cheaters. U.S. Olympic officials raced to paint Leonard, who is not a member of their staff, as a loose cannon—though one long devoted to keeping the sport clean. And it's not as if he doesn't have ammo. Five Chinese swimmers were banned in 2009 after testing positive for clenbuterol at the '08 junior worlds, and in June, China suspended female swimmer Li Zhesi, part of a world-record-setting 400 medley relay in 2009, for using EPO, a blood-boosting drug. (Three U.S. swimmers have tested positive for banned substances since 2008.)