By Bridget O’Donnell
Surprising performances from Sun Yang (left) and Ye Shiwen (right) have helped China become a force to be reckoned with in swimming at the 2012 Olympics.
The first five days of the London Olympics have given China a chance to prove that its impressive medal haul in 2008 was no fluke. Heading into Day 6 of competition, the People’s Republic leads the standings so far with 30 medals, 17 of which are gold. Its closest competitor is the US, which still remains 4 gold medals behind.
That’s nothing new. But what is surprising is the fact that China has become a force to be reckoned with in swimming, an event which has been dominated by the American and Australian teams in recent Olympiads. On Saturday, Sun Yang became the first Chinese male swimmer to earn a gold medal by beating rival Park Tae-hwan in the 400m freestyle. That same day, 16-year-old Ye Shiwen stunned the world by winning the 400m individual medley. (Though doping allegations were raised after Ye’s “incredible” performance, there is no evidence against her and all medal winners are tested).
Though the US still leads in overall swimming medals, Sun and Ye’s performances have stolen the show and arguably overshadowed what was supposed to be a highly-anticipated Michael Phelps/Ryan Lochte showdown.
The BBC’s Zhuang Chen took an in-depth look at the Chinese squad and explained why the team has been so successful this year. China’s success isn’t a sudden change in fortune — it’s actually been a development that was years in the making:
“For the past 20 years or so, China’s men’s team have made tremendous efforts to win a gold but fell short,” said Zhou Xin, a sports writer with China’s Xinhua news agency and Fina’s China correspondent.
China’s women swimmers won first Olympic gold in 1992 when Zhuang Yong triumphed in the 100m freestyle. The journey to the podium for the men has been more arduous.
Until Sun’s breakthrough 20 years later, they could only settle for a silver four years ago in Beijing – a phenomena dubbed as “stronger Yin and feebler Yang” by the Chinese.
Zhou attributes the more recent success with a stronger Chinese economy. He uses Sun as an example: he was born in the ’90s, was fed with a “diet for a champion athlete” and had the resources to train with an Australian coach.
China has also been focusing on building up talent reserves:
Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it launched a national training scheme, aiming at young athletes across China aged between 11 and 16. Ye and Li Xuanxu, the gold and bronze medallists on Saturday’s women’s individual medley, come out of the scheme…
Both Sun and Ye are from Hangzhou, capital city of central China’s Zheiiang province. The city is renowned for its beautiful scenery. Now, it is regarded as a hotbed for world champion swimmers.