American swim coach John Leonard stirred the controversy over Ye Shiwen’s incredible 400 IM describing it as “unbelievable”, “suspicious” and “disturbing” (as reported in the Guardian). Of course the suspicion, given China’s history and secretive nature, is that Ye Shiwen has been aided by performance enhancing substances – doping.
Rather than speculate further as to the guilt or not of Ye Shiwen, which I guess is likely to be presumed one way or the other anyway, I’d like to consider another question: Why is Ye Shiwen’s swim disturbing? Let’s face it, whether you believe it to be artificially enhanced or not, ‘disturbing’ pretty much sums up it’s effect on the swimming world.
SCARF – The Emotional Brain
One model that helps us to understand our reaction events at a Neuropsychological level, is SCARF (Rock, 2008). This model helps us to understand the ways in which social stimuli (such as Ye Shiwen’s world record swim) are either threatening or rewarding to us. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.
In terms of status, there is the threat of the ‘world order’ being upset, which means the United States not dominating in the pool to the extent that they would like. On a basic level, even to non-American’s that can be disturbing. Where is the power going in the world, not just in swimming? Well, East
Ye Shiwen’s swim is highly disturbing, for so many people, in terms of what the future holds. Commentators have already started saying “so, are there any 16 year old Chinese girls in this event?”. Think of it like this. You’ve put years of work in. You’ve gotten yourself into a position where you think you know what you need to do to win, get a medal, get in a final and BOOM! All of your plans are thrown into uncertainty. The result? Anxiety.
Autonomy is about how much control you perceive that you have over your environment. Imagine being the best in the world and then just being blown away. Elite swimmers do try to focus on the things that they can control, but still, when a female finishes a 400 IM faster than the winner of the men’s event, Ryan Lochte, there really isn’t much you can do about it.
This is where we start to get into difficult territory. The Chinese do not appear to be out to build relationships at the games, and they don’t really show a human side. That might be a really unfair statement. It might be simply down to language, and it might appear to us Westerners that they do not express themselves openly, but in the end, how many of our swimmers and coaches would say that they can relate to the Chinese swimmers? How many of them do they consider to be friends? The fact is, this has an impact in our emotional brain and means that we are more likely to react negatively to Chinese success, compared to people that we might related to – whatever their Nationality.
And finally, when we perceive something as unfair it provokes a negative response. That’s obvious, but it’s also deeply engrained. Just watch the Monkey Grap Cucumber Experiment to see how deeply rooted it is – even young monkeys have a sense of fairness. This is where the doping side comes in most. Of course, if we believe someone may be doping it may also have an impact in other ways, such as reducing our sense of control (autonomy) or alienating us from the perpetrator (relatedness), but at the most basic level, it’s not fair. No-one knows if Ye Shiwen or any other Chinese swimmers have been involved in doping, but because of China’s history and the nature of the swim, the suspicion is there. This is unfortunate.
Is it all about doping?
This quick analysis suggests that there are more reasons that Ye Shiwen’s world record swim was disturbing than the simple question of whether or not her performance was enhanced by doping. There appears to be a slight shift in power from the traditional swimming power base of the USA (and Australia); the unexpected nature of her swim creates uncertainty; the sheer force undermines the sense of control that elite swimmers and coaches need; we’re dealing with Nation that is perceived as closed and unemotional; and they have history, which raises the suspicion further that something ‘unfair’ may be going on.
Yes, Ye Shiwen’s swim was disturbing. Not just to those directly impacted but to many of us watching. But it’s not all about doping.
Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. http://www.your-brain-at-work.com/files/NLJ_SCARFUS.pdf