RIO de JANEIRO – Something fascinating is happening here in Rio: presumably clean athletes are lashing out at the cheating going on in Olympic sports. They have had enough. This played out most prominently in one of the tensest and unfriendiest press conferences I’ve ever seen outside of pro wrestling – our own Nick Zaccardi gives you a the stomach clenching play-by play of Lilly King v. Yulia Efimova.
But, even beyond that, this does seem to be building into a movement. The question that remains, though, is which way is it moving.
The other day, you probably saw, Australian swimmer Mack Horton called China’s Sun Yang “a drug cheat.” Well, to tell the whole story, Sun Yang splashed Horton during training, presumably to say hello. Horton ignored him and later said, “I didn’t respond because I don’t have time for drug cheats.”
In 2014, Sun Yang was suspended for three months after testing positive for a stimulant that had been just banned by World’s Anti Doping Agency (WADA).
Horton went on to beat Sun Yang and win the gold medal. But the fallout from his remark has been more global that the medal. Horton was excoriated on social networks. The Chinese communist newspaper “The Global Times” was particularly expansive in its attacks, calling Horton “disgraceful” and “immoral” and reminding people in a strikingly passing-aggressive way that many call Australia, “a country on the fringes of civilization.”
Meanwhile the Australian chef de mission Kitty Chiller made it clear that if anyone was waiting for an apology, well, it’s gonna be a long, long wait.
“He has every right to express his views and displeasure,” she said.
In his wake, other athletes have spoken out. American Cody Miller called Horton “a boss,” meaning he could not agree more.
“During this Games there will probably be people who miss the podium to people who don’t deserve to be on the podium,” he added. “And that is wrong.”
Michael Phelps followed. “I think it’s sad that in sports today we have people who are testing positive not only once but twice and still have the opportunity to swim at the Games.” He encouraged more athletes to speak out.
And, of course Lilly King has been the most outspoken. The day before the 100-meter breaststroke final, King watched as Efimova wagged her finger in defiance. “You’re shaking your finger No. 1 and you’ve been caught drug cheating,” she said. “I’m just not a fan.” Later, she talked pointedly about being proud that she “competes clean.”
So the friction was palpable before the race. And then, during the race King built a lead, held Efimova off, and won gold. Then she made her feelings about Efimova even more clear. She splashed a couple of times in Efimova’s lane as a celebration (she would later say she did not mean to do that). And then she unmistakeably refused to congratulate or even acknowledge Efimova for her silver medal, even though Efimova was leaning over in her lane to offer congratulations. King turned her back.
Finally there was that press conference, with Efimova in tears and King defiantly looking away. At one particularly emotional moment, Efimova asked if she could speak in Russian because she did not feel like she was getting across her point. And as she began talking in Russian, a flurry of words and emotions and tears, the moderator asked King if she would like a translation headset so that she could understand what Efimova was saying.
“No,” King said quickly. “I’m fine.” She had no interest.
And this is where we have come because many athletes feel, very strongly, that WADA and the IOC and the other governing bodies are not protecting them and are not giving them a fair chance to compete clean. They don’t want to hear excuses. They have no tolerance for babying. The frustration is now bubbling over. When King was asked if U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin – who twice tested positive for drugs but has not tested positive in 10 years – should be on the team, she talked about it being out of her control but: No.
Of course, putting it in Hamilton verse, protest is easy, real change is harder. The common line from athletes has been, “I don’t know what to do about it but something has to be done.” And that is a start, but not much more than that. What has to be done? More: What are athletes willing to do?
Are athletes willing to give in to even more frequent and intrusive drug testing?
Are they willing to be more involved in the investigative process so that they are expected to actively turn in competitors and teammates they know or suspect of cheating (and punished if they do not)?
Are they willing to accept draconian punishments and simply accept that occasionally there will be false positives and athletes wrongly penalized?
And, perhaps most significantly, are they willing to look hard at themselves? That is to say: What is a performance enhancing drug? It’s a constantly shifting landscape. For instance, Meldonium – the drug Efimova tested positive for this year (and the one Sharapova used) – was not banned last year.
See we have in our mind this outdated image of steroids that is basically left over East Germany and, even more, from Rocky IV, of Ivan Drago and a syringe and a needle. But it’s nothing like that now. These days, many of the substances that spark positive drug tests – and this was even true of Efimova, as Alan Abrahamson writes – are perfectly legal and available at your local GNC.
So, are these athletes who are speaking out training on milk, raw eggs and Flintstone vitamins? Or are they pushing RIGHT TO THE EDGE but not OVER THE EDGE? Are they taking legal supplements or medications that might not be legal for athletes next year?
It’s such a complicated thing. But right now we are the in the rage and fury portion of the story – the complications will have to wait. Monday night, something dramatic happened. Yulia Efimova has twice tested positive for banned substances but she was allowed to compete by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. She left the arena with a silver medal. She also was in tears after being booed and jeered by the crowd and, essentially, excommunicated by her fellow competitors. By the end Efimova was, clearly, a broken young woman.
It’s up to all of us to decide, I suppose, is this was a step forward or a step back.