When Lilly King, nineteen-year-old US breaststroke swimmer, accused her Russian rival Yulia Efimova of doping, it seemed to confirm what many of us had already heard—that the 2016 Russian Olympic team is full of cheaters. “You wave your finger ‘number one,’ and you’ve been caught drug cheating?” King said after a qualifying heat last week. “I’m not a fan.”

Neither are the crowds in Rio. Russian athletes have been routinely booed during the games, and King and her US teammates have doubled down on their rhetoric. “People who have been caught for doping offenses shouldn’t be on the team,” King said later. “It’s just something that needs to be, you know, set in stone that this is what we’re going to do to settle this, and that should be the end of it.”

It’s one thing to talk about global togetherness and the celebration of diversity, but it’s another thing to actually live in harmony together, even just for a couple of weeks.

Earlier this year, a damning report from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) uncovered a large scale, state-sponsored doping scandal in the Russian Olympic team. WADA recommended that the International Olympic Committee ban the Russians from the 2016 games entirely, but the IOC demurred, opting instead to allow each sport’s international federation to make a decision on each individual athlete’s basis. In the end, 167 Russian athletes were banned from the games, while 270 were cleared to compete.

Of course the 270 have still been viewed with plenty of suspicion, and understandably so. Doping in sports is a matter of trust, and once that trust is broken it’s nearly impossible to repair it. It doesn’t help that the world’s current political climate has left our trust in big institutions in tatters. What’s more, doping is notoriously difficult to stay on top of—the violators always seems to be one step ahead of the antidoping agencies. In the end, no one trusts anyone.

The Russian doping scandal hovered in the background during the buildup to the games and over the first few days of the competition. TV announcers stoically refused to mention it, feigning deafness when crowds booed. NBC went on cheerfully peddling their version of the Olympics as a celebration of global togetherness and corporate sponsorship. Many of us, watching at home, knew there had been some doping on the Russian team and that many of the Russian athletes had been banned from the games, but for the most part we were happy to ignore it and just enjoy the show.

But the scandal took center stage when the rivalry heated up between King and Efimova. After winning her qualifying heat for the women’s 100-meter breaststroke last Sunday, King wagged her finger to remind everyone who was number one. When Efimova won the first semifinal, she mimicked King’s finger waggle.

It might have stopped there—just a friendly back-and-forth between the event’s two favorites, as far as most of us were concerned—until King gave her postrace interview after her own semifinal, and called her rival a cheater right on national TV.  Suddenly it wasn’t just a competition between two talented swimmers. It was a competition between right and wrong, between the clean, drug-free American and the dirty, cheating Russian.

After narrowly edging Efimova to gold in the final, King brought it up again. “You know, I do think it is a victory for clean sport,” she said. “Just to show that you can do it while, you know, competing clean your whole life. So that’s where I’m at.”

And that’s the narrative that clearly won the day in the American media. It’s certainly a compelling one. Clean athlete wins out over dirty athlete, fair and square. A win for the good guys—and yes, the good guys are the Americans here.

Given the history between our two nations, it’s hard not to feel a little of the old East-West tension too. The Russians’ doping was state-sponsored, after all: the same state led by Putin and his minions. Russia is polluting the Olympic games by putting commercial and geopolitical interests ahead of fairness and good faith. America is lifting high the banner of freedom and good sportsmanship on the world stage.

But things are always more complicated than they seem, and like so many other easy narratives, this one has another side.

The first of Yulia Efimova’s two drug offenses happened in 2013, when she bought a nutritional supplement at a Los Angeles GNC that contained the banned hormone DHEA. Her offense was deemed unintentional, and the normal two-year suspension was reduced to sixteen months. (It was an almost identical offense to that of American swimmer Jessica Hardy, who served a one-year suspension for taking a forbidden supplement in 2008 and went on to win two medals at London 2012.)

Efimova’s second offense is more recent, and more relevant to this Olympics: she tested positive for meldonium, a heart medication, earlier this year. Meldonium was legal—and was in broad use among Eastern European athletes—until WADA banned it in January 2016. Over 200 athletes tested positive for meldonium after January, including Efimova, but WADA decided not to ban them from the Olympics, since it’s unclear how long meldonium takes to clear the body. It’s possible Efimova stopped taking the drug when it was banned, but that traces were still in her system when she was tested.

Of course, there’s no way to prove this. We do know that many of Efimova’s Olympic teammates were doping illegally, and that her country both encouraged its athletes to cheat and made it very easy for them to do so. But Efimova trains in the US, with an American coach, and she has insisted, sometimes tearfully, that she is being unfairly caricatured. “I have made mistakes, and I have been banned for sixteen months,” she said. “[The] second time, it’s not my mistakes. Like, I don’t know why actually I need to explain [to] everybody. . . . If WADA say tomorrow, stop like yogurt or nicotine or, I don’t know, protein, that every athlete use[s], and they say tomorrow it’s on banned list. And you stop. But this [stays in] your body like six months, and doping control [comes] after two months, [and tests] you, and you’re positive. This is your fault?”

Lilly King, for her part, is young and competitive, and she has a point. Russians have been cheating, on a big scale. Doping does compromise the integrity of the sport, and one way to bring about change is for the athletes themselves to raise a ruckus about it. If Efimova’s case were as clear-cut as King obviously thinks it is, King’s actions would be easier to get behind.

Sort of. It’s easy to vilify a Russian athlete for doping from the self-righteous comfort of the American suburbs. But what if you’d grown up, as Efimova did, in the war-torn Chechen region in southern Russia? What if you’d been raised under a drastically different set of values, shaped not by Western capitalism but by the post-communist Russian state? What if doping was commonplace among the athletes you knew and trained with every day? What if your state—that supreme entity—encouraged you to cheat, even impressed on you that it was your duty to your country? Would you—would I—be able to stand up under that pressure?

None of this is to excuse cheating. But in an age characterized by increasing nationalism in many quarters, the Olympic games can prompt us to dial back our assumptions and take a closer look at the complexity of other societies. As the story of King and Efimova reminds us, any international competition will inevitably bring disparate cultures into sharp contrast, and occasionally into open conflict—something the history of the Olympics has borne out over and over again. Unity is not, as the Olympic branding implies, our default setting. It takes real humility, effort, and even, in the end, a kind of death—death to ourselves, to the prioritization of our own perspectives and interests. It’s one thing to talk about global togetherness and the celebration of diversity, but it’s another thing to actually live in harmony together, even just for a couple of weeks.

In her last interview, Efimova was asked about King. “She never talked with me,” the Russian said of her rival. “She said many things in the press conference, but nothing at all to me.” That’s been Efimova’s refrain throughout these Olympics: Take the time to understand me. Don’t make assumptions.

“You can just try and understand me, like if you switch you and I,” she said. Whether she’s clean or not, that’s a fair enough request to make.

1 Comment

  1. Even if Ms. Efimova is guilty of intentional cheating — and though meldonium may have been legal, those Eastern European athletes weren’t taking it because it was yummy — I thought Ms. King’s comments and finger-wagging were in poor taste.

    That said, it seems a little disingenuous to set “self-righteous American suburbs” against the “war-torn Chechen region” where someone might be raised under the values of the “post-Communist Russian state” with “commonplace” doping and “that supreme entity” that “encouraged you to cheat” and more and then type “None of this is to excuse cheating.”

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