Swimming Records Shatter But Stereotypes Persist

When 16-year old Ye Shiwen won the gold in the 400m individual medley, she split the swimming world in half. Not only had she set a world record, but she completed the final 50m freestyle in 28.93 seconds—faster than American Ryan Lochte, who completed the last 50m of the men’s race in 29.10, earning a gold medal.

Some expressed suspicion. Calling her feat “impossible,” some hinted only by doping could Ye Shiwen have swum so swiftly. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19058712
Others defended the teenager—who had never tested positive on a drug test—claiming that the accusations sprang from jealousy, poor sportsmanship, and a long-standing and subtle bias western nations held toward the Chinese.
After Ye’s first gold-medal swim on Saturday, arguments volleyed back and forth with precision. John Leonard of the World Swimming Coaches Association, pointed to the history of Chinese swimmers doping in the 1990s. Others countered that China had made substantial changes in training techniques and that Chinese women are slimmer and sleeker which aided them in the water. As the controversy stewed for 2 days, Ye Shiwen maintained her innocence. On Tuesday morning, she was vindicated.

Then, that evening, after Ye won a 2nd gold in the women’s 200-m individual medley swimming final, accusations of doping resurfaced. Comments sent to on-line news sources document the heated reactions and moral outrage surrounding the swimmer’s incredible accomplishment. At the time of this post, CNN tallied over 1600 comments–those supporting the teenager and those accusing her. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/08/01/world/asia/china-ye-shiwen-west-petty/index.html

Ye Shiwen isn’t the first young woman to establish a world record in swimming and face skepticism. She isn’t the first woman athlete—and sadly probably won’t be the last—whose accomplishment was marred by mixed reactions and raised underlying international cultural tensions and gender bias to the surface.

Popular Science Monthly, March 1923.

In 1922, Northwestern student and future (1924) Olympian Sybil Bauer became the first woman (recorded) to surpass a men’s swimming record. Competing at a swim meet at St. George, Bermuda, Bauer established 3 world’s records in backstroke; her time of 6:24.8 in the 440 yard shaved 4 seconds off the previous world record (6:28) held by Harold “Stubby” Krueger of Honolulu. The following year, Popular Science Monthly featured an article written by outspoken swimmer Ethelda Bleibtrey, speculating that women might begin surpassing men in other athletic endeavors. Such reflections made conservatives uneasy.

Political cartoon, Chicago Daily Tribune, August 19, 1925, 1. Courtesy, Chicago Daily Tribune.

When Gertrude Ederle became the first women to swim the English Channel—a feat many believed impossible for women—she established a world record. Swimming at 14:31, she beat the previous record (16:23) set by Argentine swimmer Enrico Tiraboschi in 1923, by nearly 2 full hours. In the years following WWI, the best distance swimmers from several nations raced to become the first woman to successfully swim the straight. At that time, American women had only recently won the long-fought battle for political enfranchisement and gender roles were being, to some degree, challenged. Because of lingering resentments from WWI, nationalist tensions also ran high. The swim provided the opportunity for nations to channel animosity into athletic competition. The first woman to swim the Channel promised to bring honor not just to her gender, but to her nation. After failing in a 1925 attempt, American Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to succeed (August 1926). President Coolidge honored her as a national hero.

Welcome parade for Gertrude Ederle, coming up Broadway, New York City, August, 1926. (Library of Congress)

Upon her return, New York City honored Ederle with a city-wide parade, the then-largest in its history, which attracted fans from across the nation. Hoping to catch a glimpse of “Trudy,” people draped themselves over fire escapes and crowded into office-building windows and rooftops.

The British, however, who had always historically reigned supreme in swimming, reacted less enthusiastically to Ederle’s triumph. At the time, few believed that a woman could withstand the difficult Channel swim at all; most simply couldn’t believe that a woman could outdistance a man by nearly 2 hours. Some trivialized her accomplishment, claiming her swim had been undertaken during unusually good conditions. Others cast aspersions. Skeptical British reporters interviewed local skippers and fishermen who speculated that if Ederle had not swum between two tug boats she would have been carried off course. Some fishermen doubted the authenticity of her swim, claiming that she made no westward drift with the ebb tide which would have been impossible on that day.

In a situation similar to that Ye Shiwen recently faced, the news media throughout the western world reported on the controversy in minute detail. Because of Ederle’s German heritage–her parents were immigrants–the German and Austrian press aligned themselves with America. Outraged by the allegations, Germans accused British critics of ethnic bias and resentment from WWI.

Ye Shiwen won two golds racing swimmers from other nations. No one could deny that she won. But some Americans, perhaps embittered by a sluggish domestic economy, were quick to accuse the teen of winning unfairly. Yesterday, she, like Ederle, was vindicated and given credit for her spectacular accomplishment. But it seems striking that 90 years after Sybil Bauer beat the men’s record in 440m backstroke, and 86 years after Gertrude Ederle set a world record in open water swimming, many still react with incredulity that a woman can outperform a man in sport.

How much of the public suspicion over this teenager’s world record stems from gender bias? How much from racial tensions and cultural resentment? It’s undeniable that national tensions still run high and long-established stereotypes about gender and race persist.