Five-ring Circus

Is Russian Swimmer Yulia Efimova Really a Villain?

A wag of the finger to the U.S. fans valorizing Lilly King’s self-righteousness.

Russia’s Yulia Efimova (left) looks on as the United States’ Lilly King (right) celebrates her gold in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke.

Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past week in Rio, American swimmer Lilly King has gone out of her way to ensure that you and everyone else watching the Olympics know that Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova is a drug cheat. Both before and after King defeated Efimova in the 100-meter breaststroke on Monday, the outspoken American was vocal in her scorn for Efimova, who has twice tested positive for banned substances. On Monday night, speaking to NBC’s Michele Tafoya, King called her victory over her Russian rival a sign “that we can still compete clean and do well at the Olympic Games, and, and that’s how it should be.”

By positioning herself as the straight-talking defender of natural athleticism and clean competition, King has become a hero to many. Efimova has become a villain—not just a doper, but a Russian doper!—held up as an example of everything that’s wrong with sport. Before the finals of the 100-meter breaststroke on Monday, Efimova was booed by the crowds at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium.* When she swims Thursday night in the 200-meter breaststroke finals, Efimova will likely be booed again.

It’s easy and tempting to see this story as a simple morality play, with the milk-fed Americans on one side and the slavering Russian dopers on the other. But Efimova’s story is much more complex than King has made it seem. Yes, Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme was engineered to pump athletes full of performance-enhancing drugs, and to evade the detection of said drugs. But though the 24-year-old Efimova competes for Russia, she has been based in the United States since she was 19, living in Los Angeles and training with USC swim coach Dave Salo. It’s easy to see the Russian flag on her warmups and imagine her a product of some brutalist state-run sports center where the training table consists of the cream and the clear; instead, she hangs out in Pasadena and probably enjoys Pinkberry.

Though Efimova has indeed had two positive tests, it’s not at all clear that either of those hits was entirely her own fault. If the circumstances of her first doping violation suggest anything, it was how easy it is to run afoul of the rules governing the use of performance-enhancing drugs in international sport. Here’s how Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post put it in a good column on Wednesday: “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.” Efimova bought her PEDs from a GNC. She probably also bought a smoothie while she was there. This, at least, was not the work of some secretive state-sponsored doping program. This was an American-style doping scandal!

Efimova’s second offense came in March of this year, when she was caught with meldonium in her system and provisionally banned from international competition by the International Swimming Federation. Meldonium, a heart medication that also purportedly improves athletic performance and has become the doping substance of choice in Russia, was not banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency until January 2016. Efimova’s positive test came in March, and she claimed that it was the result of residual meldonium in her system, left over from when it had been legal. This excuse is not bulletproof, but it is certainly plausible; in March 2016, the Latvian drug company that makes meldonium told Reuters that “its terminal elimination from the body may last for several months.”

It’s not that Yulia Efimova is entirely blameless or a victim of circumstances. Efimova is responsible for what she puts in her body, and she must bear the consequences of getting caught having ingested banned substances. But neither is she Jose Canseco. It’s dumb to speculate about which athletes are clean and which are dirty without actually knowing what we’re talking about, or what those respective terms even mean. “Clean” and “dirty” are only meaningful descriptors insofar as they exist relative to a universally accepted baseline. But, in the complex world of international sports, that baseline shifts all the time. Nobody knows this better than the athletes, who have to deal with these constantly changing rules, which is why it’s so shocking and so rare to see athletes publicly criticize their peers the way King has criticized Efimova.

In Lilly King’s view, there are only clean swimmers and dirty swimmers. King is 19 years old and, as such, might be expected to see the world in such stark terms. But between black and white there is also murky green, as anyone who has watched the Rio diving competitions knows full well. Nobody really knows anything about anything. King and her teammates can feel free to say what they want, but the rest of us should refrain from valorizing their self-righteousness.

*Correction, Aug. 12, 2016: This post originally misstated the location of the swimming competitions at the Rio Olympics. They are at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, not the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre.

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