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Growth Spurt Possible Explanation for China Swimmer Ye Shiwen’s Performance


Rumors began swirling about possible drug use, when 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen dropped around five seconds from her personal best time while winning a gold medal in the Olympic final of the 400-meter individual medley.

The five-second drop was “evidence” that something nefarious was probably going on because athletes at such an elite level simply don’t deviate from improvement curves by that much without some kind of artificial aid. The history of drug use by Chinese athletes during the 1990s only seemed to add credibility to the “Ye as drugs cheat” argument.

The main question last week seemed to be, have the Chinese developed a method to mask performance enhancers? After all Ye has not tested positive in any test she has taken so they must have, right? Maybe. If you accept the argument that drugs are the only possible explanation for Ye’s performance.

Another explanation, which I have not seen discussed anywhere yet, is that Ye is only 16 and based on growth estimates she may have only recently reached peak height velocity (PHV)—the last growth spurt prior to adulthood. PHV is a period when the fastest rate of growth in humans occurs (10-11 cm/yr) except for that during the first year of life (~20 cm/yr).

Besides the obvious growth that occurs during PHV, an accelerated period of adaptation for aerobic capacity also takes place; and in women an accelerated adaptation period for strength development happens immediately after PHV. Both of these would have a significant effect on a 400 IM performance.

I have no personal knowledge of Ye’s growth or training history but her Olympic performances could be explained by these developmental factors. She could be reaping the benefits of the developmental lottery: an obviously talented athlete experiencing the final growth spurt and strength development period in close enough proximity to the most important athletic contest in the world.

The immediate reaction to Ye’s 400 IM is evidence that we need a better understanding of athlete development especially during adolescence, and better coaching education about the process.

The mantra that “children are not merely small adults” is heard often in athlete development circles but this seems to have been ignored in Ye’s case. If an older athlete had dropped as much time as Ye in the 400 IM, then none of the developmental possibilities would apply and performance-enhancing drugs might be a more likely explanation.

But to suggest or imply that drug enhancement is responsible for the 16-year-old’s performance is unfair and certainly premature.

Given Ye’s chronological age, it is possible that she is much closer to a biological adolescent than an adult. We simply don’t know and until we do Ye’s performance should be celebrated. If five or 10 years from now better tests indicate that some shenanigans were going on, then I’ll be disappointed along with everyone else. Until then, what’s wrong with hoping that performances like Ye’s are possible? What’s wrong with sharing the joy of seeing a young athlete doing something incredible? Isn’t that part of why we watch the Olympics?

Bill Price works for the United States Sports Academy where, among other things, he teaches courses in areas related to physical education and coaching. He also coached youth swimming for a number of years.  He is currently on a six-month assignment teaching physical education to Malaysian physical education teachers to help the country in its development of a scholastic sports program. Anyone interested in this program or in other Academy programs should go to http://ussa.edu


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