RIO de JANEIRO — Lilly King is a great swimmer.
But a good sport? One who lives — in her gold-medal moment — the key Olympic values: friendship, excellence and respect?
Much of the English-speaking media proved all too eager Monday evening to latch on to an easy narrative that abruptly cast King as a virtuous American hero, striking a blow for drug-free sport in winning the women’s 100m breaststroke while slaying the notorious Russian, the sudden villain Yulia Efimova.
After Sunday’s preliminaries, King and Efimova had engaged in something of who’s-No. 1 finger-waving battle, King saying, “You know, you’re shaking your finger No. 1 and you’ve been caught for drug cheating. I’m just not, you know, a fan.”
On Monday, after winning the 100m breaststroke final ahead of Efimova, American Katie Meili third, King said, “It’s incredible, just winning a gold medal and knowing I did it clean.”
The reference could not have been more obvious.
The consequence cannot be more disquieting.
“I’m not this sweet little girl,” King had said in a group interview Monday, adding, “That’s not who I am.”
Very few sweet and kindly souls win Olympic gold. The central problem is that the sort of narrative that produces such judgment comes cheap and easy. But facts matter.
This is not 1976 and the Montreal Games. The Russians, despite the easy comparison, are not the East Germans. What we now know about the grotesque excesses of the East German system has been proven through evidence delivered, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, under oath and tested by cross-examination.
None of that is proven true — at least yet — in regards to the allegations served up in the weeks before the 2016 Games by the World Anti-Doping Agency-commissioned report from Canadian law professor Richard McLaren.
Even if it were, that begs the obvious question: is Efimova in that report? What in particular is she alleged or proven to have done? Because that report is about allegations involving the state, not replete with details of individual misconduct.
Indeed, that is the entire point: Doping matters, like those involving Efimova, are not — repeat, not — susceptible to blacks and whites.
Instead, what’s at issue is an appreciation, as with everything in our imperfect lives, for shades of grey.
It also takes an appreciation for Yulia Efimova as a human being with feelings, goals and dreams of her own — rather than caricaturing her as a Cold War-style vixen.
In Olympic history, no swimmer from Russia had ever been on the podium in the 100m breast.
"A week ago,” Efimova said after the race, “I didn't even know if I could race because I'm Russian. I'm just happy to be here."
Efimova, now 24, is a four-time breaststroke world champion. She is the 2012 bronze medalist in the women’s 200m breast. She has trained at the University of Southern California; indeed, she moved to Southern California in her late teens. This means many things, among them: She has submitted to American drug testing.
“I’m like last four years training in the USA,” Efimova said at a late Monday news conference. “I have been in Russia just like maybe one month a year. I don’t know what’s going on in Russia.”
Efimova has had to contend with two doping-world matters:
The first involves a supplement, the stuff in the big plastic jugs that millions of Americans buy each and every day at the mall. Just like she did.
For emphasis, the American swimmer Jessica Hardy tested positive in 2008 after ingesting a tainted supplement. Hardy had to miss the Games, proved via her excellent lawyer Howard Jacobs that the problem was the supplement, served a (reduced) one-year ban, then came back and swam for the United States in the 2012 London Games, winning gold and bronze medals in the relays.
The facts of the Hardy and Efimova cases are very, very similar.
Hardy has been celebrated, and rightly so, as an example of shining redemption: She was one of the U.S. swim team’s captains at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, and the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships at Gold Coast, Australia. Corporate America now sees her so brightly that she is featured in ads for that most wholesome of products, chocolate milk.
Yet Efimova is cast so differently? This, plain and simple, is hypocrisy.
Efimova’s second matter involves meldonium, the Latvian-manufactured heart drug that was apparently in wide use among athletes in the former Soviet Union and its satellite republics and is now the source of significant controversy in the anti-doping campaign.
A quick recap of the facts:
On Oct. 31, 2013, Efimova tested positive — in an out-of-competition test — for the banned substance DHEA.
The source of the positive, according to an arbitration ruling, was a supplement, Cellucor CLK, that she had bought Sept. 16 at a GNC near where she lives in California.
For a world champion and Olympic medalist to be buying stuff at GNC is, by any measure, a mistake.
Efimova compounded the mistake by relying on the salesperson for advice, alleging she believed the clerks “at vitamin stores in the United States were well-educated and knowledgeable concerning the products they sold.”
From the decision:
“Ms. Efimova testified that although she is an elite swimmer who had been through numerous doping controls and although she is aware that she is responsible for what she puts in her body, Ms. Efimova has never been given specific anti-doping education and has never been taught how to be a wise consumer of supplements, a problem her lawyer contended was compounded by the fact that her English is self-taught and by her relative unfamiliarity with the supplement market in the United States.”
The three-person panel specifically called out the Russian Swimming Federation, saying “the fact that no anti-doping education was provided to Ms. Efimova by the RSF is disappointing and put her at a disadvantage in fulfilling her responsibility to be a savvy consumer.”
As the decision noted, a quick look at the label would have clearly shown DHEA listed as an ingredient.
Intent matters in the doping world, and taking a DHEA-laced supplement, especially inadvertently, is not anywhere the same as willingly injecting the blood-booster EPO.
Efimova didn’t even bother to have the B sample tested. She didn’t contest the lab finding. She knew what she had done.
Thus the case involved negligence, not reckless, not willful intent.
This is why Efimova got a one-third reduction in her time-out: 16 months instead of what was then the standard penalty, two years.
As for the meldonium matter:
She tested positive for the stuff in March 2016.
This doesn’t count as a strike, however, because WADA, after first saying the stuff was a no-go as of Jan. 1, 2016, has since walked back its rules on the grounds that no one really knows how long the stuff stays in your system.
If, say, Efimova took meldonium last year and it was still in her in March — she was playing by the rules.
She said at that Monday night news conference:
“I have once when I made mistakes and I have been banned for 16 months. For second time, it’s not my mistakes. Like, I don’t know actually I need to explain everybody or not. I just like have some question. 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 out of your body six months and doping control is coming, like, after two months, tested you and you’re positive. This is your fault?”
You have someone whose English was — and remains — not great, who when she bought a tainted supplement at GNC was in her early 20s, who relied on a friendly American clerk to help her — and now she’s depicted as a world-class villain?
One word: why?
Maybe this, as Efimova also said: “Because sport, like Olympic Games, usually in the Olympic Games all wars stopping. Now they like try to do, they like can find a way how they can like beat Russia. Now they try to make news like athletes, but this is unfair.”