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Doping controversy has emerged after China’s Ye Shiwen won the women’s 400 swimming medley in what some commentators have dubbed ‘unbelievable’ time.

With China’s past history of swimmers testing positive for banned drugs, Ye’s swim was bound to get the gossips talking but now John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, has described the 16-year-old’s gold medal-winning performance as “disturbing”.

Leonard said that Ye’s swim "brings back a lot of awful memories" of Irish swimmer Michelle Smith's winning performance at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Smith was banned for four years after testing positive for androstenedione.

Ye won gold in the women's 400 metres, thrashing American world champion Elizabeth Beisel and setting a new world record for the tough event. Adding fuel to the fire of suspicion, Ye completed her final lap almost as fast as men's champion Ryan Lochte of the U.S. did when he won the same title on Saturday.

"My results come from hard work and training and I would never use any banned drugs. The Chinese people have clean hands," Ye told China News Service.

There has been no official accusation that Ye used performance-enhancing drugs but on social networking sites rumours of doping quickly began to fly around. In response, Ye issued a denial, telling reporters:

"There is absolutely no problem with doping. The Chinese team has always had a firm policy about anti-doping."

Leonard is the first prominent figure in the swimming world to voice his concern. However he urged caution.

“We want to be very careful about calling it doping," Leonard said, as reported by The Guardian. "The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, 'unbelievable', history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved. That last 100m was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers, for people who have been around a while. It was reminiscent of 400m individual medley by a young Irish woman in Atlanta."

Leonard has questioned why Ye was not competing in the 200m or 400m freestyle, given her apparent ‘superwoman’ skills.

Other swimmers have raised doubts. Stephanie Rice, the Australian who won gold in both women's medley events in Beijing in 2008, described Ye’s swim as "insanely fast" while Ariana Kukors, the 2009 world 200m medley champion from the USA used the term "unbelievable".  

What substances are used for doping swimmers?

Some of the substances that have been used are human growth hormone (HGH), Erythropoietin (EPO), Androgenic Anabolic Steroids (AAS), and Testosterone.

Big Olympics doping scandals

East Germany's systematic doping

East Germany was systematically doping its athletes although many of the athletes did not understand this at the time. The East German Women's Swimming tem scooped countless Olympic medals between 1964 and 1988. When East Germany collapsed and unified with West Germany the doping files were found, doctors and sport directors were taken to court but no medals were adjusted by the IOC.

Doping and the Chinese women’s swim team

The dramatic improvement in the Chinese women’s swim team - from winning four gold medals at the 1992 Olympics to 12 golds at the 1994 World Championships - raised questions. At the 1994 Asian Games, 11 Chinese women swimmers tested positive for dihydrotestosterone. Following that, at the 1996 Olympics China only won a single gold medal, and no positive tests.

In the 1998 World Championships, four swimmers tested positive and human growth hormone was found in a swimmer's luggage.

Four women were removed from the Chinese squad before the 2000 Olympics, for irregular test results, while at the 2004 Olympics, none of the swimmers tested positive but only one gold medal was earned.

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