Could an athlete then be disciplined simply for performing too well?
“That would be unfair,” says Tucker. “The final verdict is only ever going to be reached by testing. It has to be.” In recent years, cycling authorities have successfully prosecuted athletes for having anomalous blood profiles, even when banned substances such as EPO could not be found. But performance is too far removed from taking a banned substance and influenced by too many outside factors to convict someone of doping, Tucker says. “When we look at this young swimmer from China who breaks a world record, that’s not proof of anything. It asks a question or two.”
*Clarification (8/6/12): The year was added after the original posting to reflect the change made to the story on the Nature site.
Editor's note (8/6/12): This story drew an extraordinary amount of outraged responses, the volume of which overwhelmed Nature's commenting system and resulted in the accidental deletion of some comments. Nature's top editors have posted an explanation here; a portion of that response is reproduced below:
The news story was triggered by a debate that was already active, concerning the scale of Ye Shiwen’s victory. Such debates have arisen over many outstanding feats in the past, by athletes from many countries, and it is wrong to suggest, as many of the critics do, that we singled her out because of her nationality.
The story’s intention as an explainer was to examine how science can help resolve debates over extraordinary performances, not to examine those performance statistics in detail. Several analyses done by others convinced us that it was fair to characterize Ye’s performance as "anomalous"—in the sense that it was statistically unusual. But we acknowledge that the combination of errors discussed above and the absence of a more detailed discussion of the statistics (which with hindsight we regret) gave the impression that we were supporting accusations against her, even though this was emphatically not our intention. For that, we apologize to our readers and to Ye Shiwen.
Tim Appenzeller Chief Magazine Editor, Nature
Philip Campbell Editor in Chief, Nature