Yale Professor Clears Olympic Swimming Controversy

Ye Shiwen celebrates after winning the women’s 400 IM at the London 2012 Olympics. Courtesy of The Guardian.

Almost immediately after Nature released its controversial piece on Chinese Olympic swimmer Ye Shiwen, titled “Why great Olympic feats raise suspicions,” the response letters began to flood in, including one written by Yale Associate Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, Weimin Zhong.

In the Nature article, Ewen Callaway contributed to the ongoing debate about the integrity of Ye’s world-record-breaking performance in the 2012 London Olympics by arguing that the 16-year-old’s “anomalous” race, while not proof of foul play, certainly raised concerns. He claimed that not only did Ye beat her personal best in the 400 IM by more than seven seconds, but she also out-swam American gold-medalist Ryan Lochte in the last 50 meters of their respective 400 IM races. Within three days of publication, Callaway’s article had drawn what Nature editors called an “extraordinary level of outraged response.”

In China, scientists and other readers of Nature, angered by the piece, contacted the Chinese Biological Investigators Society (CBIS), a group of scientists who collaborate on scientific research, projects, and other miscellaneous issues. Zhong, Vice-President of the CBIS, was aware of the controversy surrounding Ye’s swim but had not given it much attention until the group was contacted by Chinese scientists. “This is the first case in which we got involved in something that’s not scientific,” Zhong said, “but analyzing data is scientific, and the problem is that they selectively took out data. That’s a no-no in science.”

Zhong worked with his colleagues Hao Wu and Linheng Li, professors from Harvard and Stowers Institute for Medical Research, respectively, to expose this scientific fallacy. In their response letter, which Nature would later publish as “Some facts about Ye Shiwen’s swim,” they demonstrated that Ye’s previous personal best was actually only five seconds slower than her world record time, compared to the seven-second difference that Nature reported.

These researchers then compared Ye’s improvement with the improvements of other young swimmers, finding that, historically, many other prominent teenage swimmers had improved their times by five or more seconds, including Ian Thorpe, Adrian Moorhouse, and Elizabeth Beisel.

Courtesy of Nature.

Finally, they challenged Callaway’s comparison of Ye and Lochte’s times in the last 50 meters of their respective races, questioning Callaway’s decision to omit the fact that Lochte finished his 400 IM an entire 23 seconds faster than Ye Shiwen or that Lochte was not even close to being the fastest man in the last 50 meters. Zhong recognized that it would be easy to label Nature’s article as biased. “Oftentimes, it’s not very easy to tell the difference between incompetence and bias. I don’t think there’s any ill-will — it looks to me like the Nature reporter was just lazy,” he said.

It was that laziness and Nature’s failure to adhere to higher standards of factual reporting that drew him into the controversy in the first place. “If we aren’t sure about things, we tend not to write anything about it,” he said, “but in this case, the facts are very easy to find, and once you look at the facts there’s absolutely no basis for the accusation.”