(AP) LONDON - What are they on? Or are they?
When Chinese swimmers started blowing rivals out of the water in London's Olympic pool, whispers quickly followed. Is China cheating the sport again, as it did in the 1990s, when drug-fueled, muscle-bound swimmers emerged from nowhere to beat the world? Alain Bernard, the 2008 Olympic freestyle champion from France, was among those who wondered.
"I'm for clean sport, without doping, and I truly hope the authorities in charge of this are doing their job in good conscience and really well," he said. "Unfortunately, I want to say that there is no smoke without fire. But today there is no proof to show that any Chinese has tested positive in this competition."
At a briefing Monday in London, reporters peppered Arne Ljungqvist, the International Olympic Committee's medical commission chairman, with questions about Ye Shiwen, China's 16-year-old swimming sensation.
"Suspicion is halfway an accusation that something is wrong," Ljungqvist said. "I don't like that. I would rather have facts."On Tuesday, the IOC again sprung to Ye's defense, saying she passed a drug test after her world record win in the 400 medley. IOC spokesman Mark Adams urged people to "get real" and said it is "very sad" if great performances cannot be applauded.
Unlike the 1990s, however, there are plausible explanations this time for why China is the swimming phenomenon of the 2012 Games.
For example, Ye's astounding world record in the 400 medley, when she swam the last 50 meters faster than American Ryan Lochte did in winning the equivalent men's race, isn't solely attributable to her large hands and feet. It also is at least partly because China, which has grown to become the world's second-largest economy, now throws big checks at some of swimming's sharpest minds. China has turned to foreign trainers to get their coaching programs, expertise and methods, not only to hone its swimming stars but to make them more rounded and relaxed, too. The idea is that happy swimmers are fast swimmers.
Ye has trained in Australia with two well-recognized coaches, Ken Wood and Denis Cotterell. Wood has had a contract with the Chinese Swimming Association since 2008, and 15 of China's swimmers in London, plus five of its relay swimmers, have trained at his academy north of Brisbane, rotating through in groups for a couple of months at a time, he told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
"I get paid per month, per swimmer four times more than I do with my home swimmers," Wood said from Australia after Ye qualified comfortably fastest Monday in the 200 medley heats. China pays him bonuses for Olympic gold and for swimmers' personal bests, and he also got a bonus for Ye's 200 medley world championship win in 2011.
"China is putting a lot of money into its program and I am only too happy to work with them," he said. "The whole Chinese philosophy is that they want to be the best they can."
Not only is training overseas exposing Chinese swimmers to more sophisticated coaching, it is teaching them about life and the wider world. In Australia, they and their coaches are learning to let their hair down a bit and about themselves. For a seasoned observer of China and its state-run sport system, the worldlier Chinese swimmers performing so well in London are truly a new breed. These aren't the automatons of old, with monosyllabic stock responses about how grateful they are to their motherland and seemingly so ignorant of life outside China's government-funded medal factories with their grind of training and yet more training far from family and friends.
Sun Yang, China's first man to win an Olympic swimming gold, radiates self-assurance, spunk and zeal. The 6-foot-6 swimmer with size 45 feet roared, pounded the water with his fists, wept and remembered to thank his mom and dad "Really great parents, they gave me so much" after crushing defending champion Park Tae-hwan of South Korea in the 400 free. Sun is among those who have trained in Australia.
Backstroker Fu Yuanhui, a bubbly 16-year-old, turned out for her semifinal in a silly, furry, Santa Claus-type hat and a cheesy grin. Lu Ying, silver medalist behind the United States' Dana Vollmer in the 100 fly, gave a long, thoughtful answer about why Australia was such an eye-opener for her. She said she was particularly impressed by the enthusiasm of the Australian swimmers she trained with and how they balanced work and play.
"They're always having fun. They're not worrying that if they have too much fun they won't be able to move when the training gets hard. Chinese are quite particular about these things, about resting before training hard. But that isn't how they think. They think that when it's time to have fun, then you have fun," she said. "So you end up feeling that our thinking is a bit restricted too much by social conventions and taboos and that we limit ourselves and that sometimes we can't relax. Their teammates often invite them to barbecues, they eat, or their dad will often do a barbecue or breakfast and what not. And you think, 'That wouldn't happen in China."'