By Sally Jenkins, sports columnist, Washington Post, August 10, 2016
RIO DE JANEIRO — Feels good, doesn’t it, to slap water in the face of the rest of the world and go all jingoist? Lilly King kept America strong and pure when she sent a blast of chlorine into the eyes of that Russian criminal mastermind Yulia Efimova and prevented her from melting the earth’s core. Or something like that, right? But there is a disquieting aspect to the narrative going here at the Olympics. It’s not a moment of perfect American moral clarity.
King, 19, is a swaggeringly great swimmer, but the rivalry between her and 24-year-old Efimova in the breaststroke is hardly a simple matter of a clean swimmer prevailing over “drug cheating,” as King put it. The facts of Efimova’s case aren’t nearly so clear cut despite the self-righteous Cold War shunning of her. It’s worth looking a little more closely at the human face of Efimova and maybe even standing in her place for a minute. As she suggested tearfully the other night, “You can just try and understand me, like if you switch you and I.”
For starters, Efimova doesn’t live in Russia; she lives in Los Angeles, where she has trained with Southern Cal Coach Dave Salo since she was 19. He says via email, “She is a sweet kid and not the monster she is being branded.” She was born in the war-torn Chechen capital of Grozny and raised in the Russian swim-club system in Volgodonsk, but in 2011, her coaches feared she was wearied by the grind of the Russian program, so they asked Salo to take her on.
Efimova has two offenses for performance-enhancing on her record, and let’s take a closer look at them. One day in 2013, she went to a local GNC in L.A. and bought a nutritional supplement. Her English was poor, and she didn’t check the contents, which included the banned hormone DHEA. Efimova’s offense was deemed unintentional, and the normal two-year suspension was reduced to 16 months.
No American would do such a thing, right? Actually, as NBC correspondent Alan Abrahamson has pointed out, Efimova’s case was very similar to that of Jessica Hardy, banned for ingesting a tainted supplement in 2008 only to win two medals at London 2012. No one splashed water in Hardy’s face or refused to shake her hand.
Salo has coached American champions from Amanda Beard and Rebecca Soni to Aaron Peirsol and Jason Lezak, and he estimates that “90 percent plus” of all international athletes consume some sort of supplement, though he tries to discourage it. “I lost the battle a long time ago with regards to athletes believing that they need something” for recovery, etc., he said.
Efimova is deemed a chronic cheat here mainly because of her second offense: testing positive for the heart medication meldonium in the midst of the crisis over the exposure of state-sponsored doping in Russia. Meldonium was in broad use by Eastern European athletes legally until WADA prohibited it in January 2016. This spring, WADA declined to ban more than 200 athletes who tested positive for meldonium after January, including Efimova, because it’s unclear how long it takes to clear the system. It’s quite possible that she obeyed the WADA ban but the medication remained in her system anyhow.
Efimova tried to explain these circumstances in her Olympic post-race news conference as King refused to look at her. Here was Efimova’s account of herself, and you can accept it or not.
“I have once when I made mistakes, and I have been banned for 16 months,” she said. “For second time, it’s not my mistakes. Like, I don’t know why actually I need to explain everybody or not. . . . Like if WADA say, like, tomorrow, stop like yogurt or nicotine or, I don’t know, protein, that every athlete use, and they say tomorrow now it’s on banned list. And you stop. But this is stay [in] your body like six months, and doping control is coming, like, after two months, tested you, and you’re positive. This is your fault?”
Salo has qualms about the inclusion in Rio of Efimova and other Russian swimmers who tested positive and has even indefinitely suspended all international swimmers from his Trojan program. But he does not believe in demonizing them for the systemic practices they were reared with in their federations. “They are unsuspecting pawns in government or federation directives,” he said. “Yulia is a nice woman with too much talent to need performance enhancing supplementation.”
He believes she took meldonium on the advice of her doctor and observes that Eastern Europeans believe heavy training is bad for the system. “Apparently, most of Eastern European athletes think they have to protect their hearts because training is contraindicated,” he said.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of Efimova, it’s hard to see how the American censoriousness against her — or any individual athlete — is a solution to state-sponsored doping. And it’s just begging for anti-American backlash. King is just 19, and you would never want to curb her outspokenness or competitiveness. But it’s worth suggesting to her that a lot of beloved American athletes take supplements and use medical assistance not on the banned list. It’s also worth suggesting that she’s never walked a mile in the shoes of someone born in Grozny in 1992.
“Usually in the Olympic Games, all wars stopping,” Efimova said.
Just before Efimova left Los Angeles for Rio, she saw Salo. Her status had been in question for days and her training in chaos as the International Olympic Committee debated and defaulted on the status of Russian athletes. “At the last minute they said she would be swimming,” Salo says. “I told her it was going to be hard and that she would not be well received. So be prepared for the hardest racing of her life.”
It’s safe to say the racing was not the hard part.
How NBC used King-Efimova rivalry to bring Cold War back to the Olympics
By David Bauder, Associated Press, Aug. 9, 2016
NEW YORK – For a few minutes, it felt like 1980 again. An American versus a Russian, this time squaring off in a swimming pool instead of an ice skating rink.
Lilly King’s victory over Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova in the 100-metre breaststroke Monday was portrayed by NBC as a victory of clean sportsmanship over cheating. Efimova had already served a 16-month suspension for doping and tested positive earlier this year for a now-banned substance, and her initial suspension from the Olympics was overturned on appeal.
Efimova was booed by many in the crowd when introduced before the race, though a smattering of Russian fans cheered her on. King made no secret of her disapproval of Efimova, both in interviews and body language, and NBC ran with the narrative.
She could hardly contain her satisfaction at capturing gold. “It just proves you can compete clean and still come out on top with all the hard work you put in behind the scenes, behind the meet, at practice and weight sessions,” the 19-year-old Indiana University student said giddily. “There is a way to become the best and do it the right way.”
NBC analyst Rowdy Gaines called King’s victory a “statement swim” for the rest of the world. It took an extra question from Michele Tafoya after the race, but King said she hoped to send a message “that we can still compete clean and do well at the Olympic Games and that’s how it should be.”
It was a feel-good win for television viewers. And yet…
Was King improperly taking the role of judge and jury for herself? Was she reflecting the Olympic ideals of competition? Was she acting like an ugly American?
Those are some uncomfortable questions that could have been brought up, but weren’t. And if NBC made an effort to get Efimova’s side of the story after her silver medal-winning race, it wasn’t apparent to viewers. She spoke afterward and was quoted by other news organizations, including The Associated Press.
Efimova initially held her emotions in check after King beat her to the line and celebrated wildly alongside her. But after completing a round of television interviews the Russian wept uncontrollably when she saw her agent Anna Mitkova across a barrier in the media interview area. The pair embraced and Efimova sobbed hard for nearly five minutes and Mitkova attempted to console her.
Efimova refused to comment on her rivalry with King when questioned later, saying only: “I am sad that I could not win a gold for Russia, but I am happy to have won silver.”
King didn’t acknowledge Efimova during a raucous victory celebration. While Efimova hung on the rope separating their lanes in the middle of the pool, King took off in the other direction to congratulate Meili. The medallists all climbed out of the pool together, but the Americans quickly got back to celebrating on deck. Efimova walked away by herself.
Efimova said she’s been treated unfairly, having already served a penalty for a doping violation that occurred while she was training in Los Angeles with one of America’s most prominent coaches, Dave Salo. As for the second positive test, any possible sanctions were put on hold while the World Anti-Doping Agency does more research on meldonium, which was only put on the banned list at the beginning of the year.
“Athletes used to be outside politics,” Efimova said. “It’s really painful for me that a lot of athletes don’t understand that and just watch the TV and accept everything that’s said there.” She called on them “to swap places with me and understand how I feel.”
Russia vs. U.S.: a tense swimming race, a strained aftermath
By Mark Trevelyan and Jack Stubbs, Reuters, Tuesday, Aug 9, 2016
RIO DE JANEIRO – The women’s 100 meters breaststroke final at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics on Monday had already crackled with tension in a tight finish but it was nothing compared to what transpired afterwards. American Lilly King held off fast-finishing Russian Yulia Efimova to clinch the title, with fellow American Katie Meili winning bronze. King broke the Olympic record to win.
If the race itself was nail-biting, the aftermath was excruciating given King had stoked the flames beforehand, speaking out against the inclusion of Efimova after she successfully appealed a ban imposed for past doping suspensions.
After the victory ceremony, the two Americans wrapped themselves together in the Stars and Stripes. Efimova, who had broken down in tears, stood awkwardly to one side.
The three were then obliged to attend a joint media conference that was dominated by the issue of doping, especially since King had criticized the Russian for raising her finger in victory after winning her semi-final.
“You’re shaking your finger ‘number one’ and you’ve been caught for drug cheating,” she had told reporters on Sunday. “I’m not a fan.”
With Efimova booed every time she stepped onto the pool deck, the pressure had been on the American to beat the Russian world champion, though the 19-year-old said she felt that any Olympic final was full of tension.
“Even just going in to your first Olympic final, any Olympic final for that matter, the pressure is going to be on,” she said. “But especially standing up for what I believe is right, I felt that I needed to perform and do better than I had in the past.
“I do think it is a victory for clean sport and just to show that you can do it while … competing clean your whole life.”
Efimova told reporters that she had not slept for the past month as she waited to learn whether she would be allowed to compete in Rio.
That question was resolved only last Friday when she won her legal challenge against her exclusion by arguing she had served her suspensions and should not be punished again.
At the news conference, she spoke in a trembling voice and struggled to keep her composure as she acknowledged in broken English she had “made mistakes” and complained at the media coverage she had received.
She later switched to her native Russian when she was asked about her opponents’ failure to congratulate her after the race.
“I perfectly understand athletes who do this,” she said. “But on the other hand I don’t understand, because it always used to be that all athletes were above politics.
“It’s really hurtful because now lots of athletes don’t understand that, they simply watch the television and believe everything.”
King, who did not have headphones to hear the translation, rolled her eyes while Efimova was speaking and defended herself for not shaking hands with the Russian. “If I had been in Yulia’s position I would not have wanted to be congratulated by someone who was not speaking highly of me,” King said.
“So if she was wishing to be congratulated, I apologize. She had a fantastic swim and I always look forward to racing her, but I was really just in the moment celebrating with Katie.”
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)
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