“The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly” – Abraham Lincoln
In that sense, letting the Russians in, letting the charade unfold, letting the tears flow, letting each and every day of these Games so far be turned into a place where clean athletes confront on an event-by-event basis those who fell from grace when they tested positive for banned substances, just may be the best thing that could ever have happened if the Olympic Movement is to be salvaged from the shipwreck it floats on as sharks circle.
When Putin and friends declared Check Mate they hadn’t noticed that End Game was still to come. It raised its head, unfurled and unfolded all about us like an invasive and bitter weed here tonight at the Rio Aquatics Centre, thorns, trembling, tears and all.
We saw it in the 200m freestyle: there was Sun Yang* picking up gold and writing lines in history that fall like blood on the swimming page where water does not dilute so much as spread the stain and pain.
We saw it when Cornel Marculescu, the director of FINA, rose to combat the booing with a hug for Sun on the Olympic pooldeck. Zero-tolerant. You must be joking?
We saw it when Sun confirmed his affection for the director (that bloke who said “you cannot condemn the stars for a minor doping offence”) with the words: “Marculescu is a very good friend of (the) Chinese swim team and he actually watched me like a grandfather. I hope this friendship will last.”
Great, we wish them all the best on what we hope will be a very long voyage somewhere well beyond the world of elite swimming.
If the members of FINA do not know find the courage shown by Mack Horton, Lilly King, the kids and coaches in Rio making their feelings known in the stands then they no longer represent those people.
If the members of FINA think it acceptable for the director to hug an athlete with an asterisk on his head but ignore all those children he’s abandoned for so long then they no longer represent those people.
The deck is burning; it is stacked with the remains of day and the decade; the ghosts of Dr Kipke mingling with the living dead of sporting achievement present.
Here, Mr Marculescu and Co is the star you need to be more concerned about: Michael Phelps, you know, he of 23 Olympic medals, 19 of them gold. GOAT? Come on, you must have heard of him.
Well, anyway, this is what he had to say:
“You’re probably going to see a lot of people speaking up more. I think something needs to be done. It’s sad that today in sports in general, not just only swimming, there are people who are testing positive who are allowed back in the sport – and multiple times. It breaks what sport is meant to be and that’s what pisses me off.”
“I believe sport should be clean and sport should be on an even playing field, and I think that it’s sad that in sports today we have people who are testing positive not only once but twice and still having the opportunity to swim at this Games.”
“It breaks my heart and I wish somebody would do something about it.”
Sport is not war but war came to sport tonight
Phelps was speaking after 19-year-old Lilly King made it clear she didn’t think Russian Yulia Efimova should be competing in the Rio Games.
King backed up her comments with a 100m breaststroke victory over world champion Efimova, who has served a 16-month steroid ban but was allowed to swim in Rio despite testing positive for meldonium this year.
King: 1:04.93; Yuliya Efimova* 1:05.50; Katie Meili 1:05.56.
The first sub-1:05 Olympic victory was aboiut to be overshadowed by the storm clouds gathering over the IOC, FINA and all who have allowed cheats to prosper down the years, left the results of cheating firmly in place, unchallenged, and now think everyone should “be free to compete in tranquility and not be addressed by others”, as an IOC spokesman put it today.
Has the man been slumped under a table unare that the planet has shifted on its axis? “We would encourage people to respect their fellow competitors,” says Mark Adams, the irony of his words aparently lost on him as clean athletes scream for respect in turn.
And so we get to Lilly King, Queen of the Day. She was 15 when London 2012 was unfolding and age peer Ruta Meilutyte was producing one of the upset wins of the Games on her way to becoming the fastest breaststroke swimmer the world of women had even known (she still is). Meilutyte’s lack of top form spoke of a troubled 2015 in and out of the water, a 1:07 in her follow-up Olympics unreflective of what she is capable of, refeclective of what she hates: to race in a lane next to Yuliya Efimova*.
She was not alone but King brought her troops to battle. The feisty American stared down her rival on the blocks and when she’d beaten her in the pool, slapped the water over the lane line in her rival’s face, singularly avoided shaking hands, let alone contemplating traditional hug and a kiss, turned her back on the Russian and headed in the opposite direction to celebrate with teammate Katie Meili, the bronze medallist.
Down in corridors and dungeons where reporters mingle with athletes, coaches, parents, onlookers and more, it was time to make way for King, a student at Indiana University, where the waters, the halls and canteens and corridors have been graced by the likes of Mark Spitz, Gary Hall and Jim Montgomery. Said the teen:
“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. There is a way to become the best and do it the right way.”
Efimova arrived in Rio as one of the symbols of the Russian doping crisis even though she has been based in the United States these past four years.
In 2013 it all went pear-shaped when she tested positive for DHEA. The explanation: she failed to reae the label of the ‘supplement’ she’d bought in a local store in Los Angeles. She served a lenient 16-month ban and returned just in time to lift the world title at home in Kazan at world titles last year.
All set to enter Olympic year as a title favourite. Then came the meldonium saga, the most important question in which has been overlooked in the rush of arguments over a substance that made the banned list from January 1 this year. The point? Trust. Had she told Dave Salo what she was taking in 2013? Had she told him she was taking meldonium in 2015 – and if so, what did he think about a product not approved for use by the FDA in the United States?
Cutting a long story short, Efimova was suspended again, then reinstated, then barred again, then reinstated this year on the way to racing at Rio 2016 as the IOC, FINA and WADA had their own flip-flop moments with the help of the decisions of the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Back to that burning deck: King glared and glowered at Efimova in the ready room and again on the blocks before the race. Efimova was booed by many in the teams stand and crowd when she walked out and was introduced.
In a packed conference room, Efimova faced a volley of questions, two of them from Hajo Seppelt, the WRD journalists whose team at ARD German TV broke the Russian doping scandal to the world.
Seppelt noted the uncomfortable truth in the IOC’s position: you, swimming Yuliya, have a doping positive in your past and are allowedd to compete here; running Yulia, that being Yulia Stepanova, has a doping ban in her past and is among the whistleblowers but has been locked out of Rio by the IOC. How did Efimova feel about that; was it fair?
“Well,” said the trembling swimmer – who would later say ‘I don’t have time to watch what’s going on with different athletes” like Stepanova, clearly affected by the grilling she was facing but enduring nonetheless: “I have once … made a mistake and was banned for 16 months. The second time it was not my mistake. I don’t know if I need to explain to people or not…”
She then drifted into a story about … “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.”
She looked sideways at that point, shot a glower and glare past Meili to King to her right and asked: “This is your fault?”
Pan faced, King refused to budge. She was queen of the day. Why should she.
The Americans – apart from the odd apologist among Olympic writes joined at the hip to the IOC – were having none of it. Here was a kid who’d failed the test and got banned – and now she was back.
Eyes red with tears, voice trembling and the emotion flowing, Efimova said: “I really don’t know how I even reached the final. It would have really been the end of a fairytale, a horrible dream, if I’d won gold. But that was all I could do right now.”
She had been through an “unbelievable” time and appealed to everyone to “see it from my point of view”.
The extent of any congratulation was a quick pat on the back on the podium.
“I basically said what everybody’s thinking,” King said. “Other swimmers we’re glad I spoke out and had the guts to say that and I appreciate their support.”
Gatlin – Go Home
And did she stand by all she’d said yesterday? And was it wise to put so much pressure on herself? You bet:
“I do stand by what I said yesterday but I still have respect for the IOC decision taken … there’s pressure in any Olympic final … I was standing up for what I believe to be right.” It was important to her to be racing “knowing that I’m competing clean and doing it right.”
So, asked another reporter, what about Justin Gatlin, twice scarred and yet on the USA team. Should he be on the team?
“You know, I have to respect their decision. No … should people who have been [served a doping suspension] be on team? No. The rules should be set in stone: that this is what we are going to do about it’. There should not be any going back and forth on it.”
Did FINA have her back and the backs of other young athletes?
“That’s a good question,” and left the quesion mark as her poignant answer.
She backed Mack Horton, saying: “He said what everyone was thinking and I spoke up for that”, namely thinking “about competing clean your whole life because that’s what I stand for”.
Given all the above, did Efimova regret she even showed up to race?
“I don’t know. I’m just happy to be here and for me it was very hard to swim today ..these three weeks have been like crazy. You can imagine what it felt like for me. I’m happy it was a good time and the best I can do right now.”
At times, she sounded like a little girl with a broken doll. How had she felt when the Americans did not congratulate her?
“I can’t understand it. It’s really painful for me that a lot of athletes don’t understand that and just read newspapers and watch the TV and accept that but it is not true.”
So, that’s us lot, the media then, though I can’t recall buying the DHEA nor taking it, nior signing up to the WADA Code that says the athlete is responsible for what makes it into their bloodstream.
What about Lilly: why didn’t you congratulate her?
“I was really in the moment with Katy and also if I’d have been Yuliya’s position I wouldn’t have wanted to have been congratulated by someone who’d not been speaking highly of her. I’m sorry if she felt she wanted to be congratulated.”
Ok, back to Yuliya with the speed of a Sharapova backhand. Did she feel the Russian authorities such as RUSADA and all involved should have identified their deep problems and sought to resolve them far sooner?
“I’m like last four years training in the USA,” said Efimova, who has trained in southern California. “I have been in Russia just like maybe one month a year. I don’t know what’s going on in Russia. … 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. … Do this through athletes – this is unfair.”
Like doping itself, perhaps.
The rules of engagement have changed. Time for the rules of sport to keep up, adjust, represent the clean athletes they are supposed to.
Athletes have got it; coaches have got it. And finally they have decided to speak out.
The IOC’s appeal has fallen on ears drummed to deaf by doping.
Repeal those soft laws. Write new and better ones that include: thou shall not take what’s on this list and if you do, you will forfeit your right to compete ever again in the ultimate arena of the Olympic Games.
“The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.” – Abraham Lincoln