LONDON — Michael Phelps ended his night of glory huddled with teammates, surrounded by roars. He had just become the most decorated Olympian in history, yet he wanted to share it.
"I thanked those guys for helping me get to this moment," he said.
Ye Shiwen ended her night of glory walking alone, huddled against a mixture of silence and jeers broken up only by a small Chinese contingent's rattles. The 16-year-old Chinese wonder had just crashed a high tide over competitors for the second gold medal in four days, yet most of the swimming world is certain she is cheating.
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"The scandal has no effect on anything," she said through an interpreter. "I won a race I had to win."
Sometimes, in witnessing the grace and strength of the competitors, the Olympics make you weep. Other times, the Olympics just make you cry.
A rainy Tuesday night at the Olympic Aquatics Centre was both of those times, a humbled and classy Phelps in one lane, and an oversized and overwhelmed Ye in the other lane.
Phelps won his record 18th and 19th Olympic medals, and even if that included a stunning collapse for silver in his favored 200-meter butterfly, he was gracious and humble in the achievement.
"It's been an amazing ride," he said with a grin. "I just love being here."
Ye won the 200 individual medley with an overpowering freestyle leg, just as she won the 400 individual medley last weekend with a similar push, yet she did little celebrating amid accusations from a U.S. swimming expert that she is taking performance-enhancing drugs.
During what was supposed to be a victorious news conference, she was repeatedly asked drug questions. She stared up mournfully from beneath her pageboy haircut. She repeatedly answered with few words and tight scowls. Although Phelps loves it here, she seemed to hate it here.
"It's a little unfair," she said.
This is how the Olympics work. They give and they take. There are moments of streaking immortality followed by fits of human frailty. There are wonders of sportsmanship followed by appearances of deceit. Sometimes all of it at once, at the same place, on the same night, when your cheers are fighting your sighs.
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Is the treatment of Ye Shiwen unfair? It is certainly not. Amid the current sports culture of cheating, such questions are not only fair, but mandatory. After all, Shiwen is not just hitting normal home runs here. She's hitting Barry Bonds home runs. She is whoosh, wham, gone, wow.
When Ye virtually jet-skied past America's Elizabeth Beisel last weekend in the final freestyle leg of the 400-meter individual medley, I actually cried out in shock. Ye reminded me of how I once felt when watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. She swam the event an almost unheard-of five seconds faster than she ever had before. And, it turns out, her final 50-meter lap in that race was two-tenths of a second faster than the one recorded by men's champion Ryan Lochte moments earlier.
Think about that. For the most important part of the Olympics' most grueling race, a woman beat a man. This has never happened in any leg in any swimming race since women began competing with men in 1912.
By Tuesday night, my cry had become a roar, led by John Leonard, director of the World Swimming Coaches Assn., who called her performance "impossible" and "unbelievable" and "disturbing."
Leonard told Britain's Daily Mail: "Any time someone has looked like superwoman in the history of our sports, they have later been found guilty of doping.… No coach that I spoke to ... could ever recall seeing anything remotely like that in a world-level competition."
Sixteen years ago, Leonard said the same thing after watching Ireland's Michelle Smith stunningly dominate the Olympic swimming in Atlanta, and he was later proved right. Although Smith never tested positive during the Olympics, later tests revealed performance-enhancing drugs in her system.
Throw in more than 40 failed drug tests by Chinese swimmers in the 1990s, and one just a couple of months ago, and the questions appear more legitimate. The buzz has reached such a furious level, the International Olympic Committee publicly promised to keep a close watch on rising stars like Ye, while a former Chinese Olympic doctor went after Phelps.
"Abnormal? America's Phelps broke seven world records, he's normal?" said Chen Zhanghao to an Australian news service. "I suspect Phelps, but without evidence, I recognize that we should be grounded in facts."
For the record, Phelps has never tested positive, and the American swimmers have been generally untainted in the drug wars. Let's be honest, most of our cheaters have competed in track and field.
Late in her news conference, Ye was blatantly asked if she used performance-enhancing drugs. The question was sad, inevitable and pure Olympics.
"Absolutely not," she said softly, vigorously shaking her head.
Soon thereafter, Phelps was sitting in that same seat, shaking his head in wonder.
I was critical of Phelps' attitude before the Olympics, but losing to Lochte in his first race here last weekend leveled him. Being out-touched in the 200-meter fly bySouth Africa'sChad le Clos on Tuesday humbled him.
"There are times where I've come sort of lazy into the wall, and that came out at the moment that I needed it the most," he admitted.
But later, setting the record with three teammates by winning the gold in the 4x200 freestyle relay warmed him. While his mother cried in the stands, Phelps was in tears on the medal podium.
"I was like, sorry, boys, I'm not going to be able to sing it with you.... Too many emotions were coming out," he said.
On just another night at the five-ring circus, he wasn't the only one.