IOC’s handling of drug cheats puts a pall over swimming venue

American swimmer Lilly King, center, not only won gold but helped serve up some patriotism with her harsh words for Russian rival Yulia Efimova, right, the silver medalist.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

While six world records have fallen during the first three days of competition at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, boos, taunts and thinly veiled accusations have filled the humid air.

The specter of Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal hangs over the pool. The national anthems after each gold-medal presentation, pounding rock music in the temporary venue, even the pool that seems designed to break records can’t seem to remove the questions.

Each day brings a new reminder that the International Swimming Federation, known as FINA, announced last month that seven Russian swimmers were barred from the Olympics for previously testing positive for banned substances or being named in the World Anti-Doping Assn.’s report on the country’s extensive doping program.


At least six of the swimmers were quietly reinstated last week without explanation. Star breaststroker Yulia Efimova was added to the start sheets 90 minutes before the first day of competition. Neither FINA nor the International Olympic Committee has responded to questions about the reversal or how they determined the swimmers were eligible for the Games.

The process is clouded in mystery and frustration, exacerbating the tension that shows no signs of abating during the eight-day competition. Some swimmers such as Efimova, twice suspended for doping, are loudly booed each time they step onto the pool deck. Competitors have traded barbs through the media. Others have demanded change — they don’t know where it will come from — so they can trust that they aren’t swimming against drug cheats.

“Clearly the circumstances that we are dealing with are frustrating to a lot of athletes,” U.S. breaststroker Cody Miller said Monday, “and unjust to a lot of athletes ... because during these Games there will probably be people who miss the podium to people who don’t deserve to be on the podium. That’s wrong.”

To many, Efimova symbolizes a flawed system.

That’s why 19-year-old American Lilly King directed an icy stare at her before the start of the 100-meter breaststroke final Monday.

Less than 24 hours earlier, King said she wasn’t a fan of Efimova, 24, and made clear that she didn’t agree with the IOC sanctioning her participation. The comments turned King into an overnight hero on social media — and transformed the race into a heated contest between opposing views of how the sport should be managed.

“It’s no longer just #TeamUSA ... THE WORLD is behind Lilly!” Miller tweeted a few minutes before the final.

“Lilly King tells it like it is …,” former American gold medal swimmer Mel Stewart added on Twitter.

King beat Efimova by more than a half-second — an eternity in the race — to capture the gold medal and set an Olympic record. Afterward, Efimova, who won silver, left the pool deck alone. King strode past without acknowledgment.

In brief comments immediately following the race, Efimova, who trained with the USC-based Trojan Swim Club, said that a week ago she hadn’t know if she’d be allowed to race “because I’m Russian.”

Two other Russians who were part of the banned, then reinstated, group — Vladimir Morozov and Nikita Lobintsev — also train with the club.

Irish swimmer Fiona Doyle called Efimova a cheater a day earlier after she finished last in a preliminary heat won by Efimova.

“FINA caved to [Vladimir] Putin and that’s just not fair on the rest of the athletes who are clean,” Doyle told the Irish Times. “Who are you supposed to trust now? They have signs all over the [Olympic] village saying we are a clean sport and it’s not.”

The most decorated Olympian of all time joined the fray, too.

“I think 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 compete at these Games,” Michael Phelps said after qualifying for Tuesday’s final in the 200-meter butterfly. “It breaks my heart, and I wish somebody would do something about it.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. continued its dominance in the men’s 100-meter backstroke. Ryan Murphy took gold — the sixth straight Olympic win for the Americans in the event — and missed breaking the world record by three-hundredths of a second. David Plummer of the U.S., who entered the Olympics with the world’s fastest time in the event this year, finished third.

Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, who has also faced past doping questions but never failed a test, won the 100 backstroke for her second gold of the Games. U.S. swimmer Kathleen Baker took silver.

The fourth winner Monday, China’s Sun Yang, served a suspension in 2014 for failing a drug test. He’s been feuding with Mack Horton since the Games started. The spat included the Australian star calling Sun a drug cheat.

Yang won the 200 freestyle, while Conor Dwyer finished third.

Not long after King vanquished Efimova, U.S. breaststroker Josh Prenot tweeted: “All is right with the world.”

The race ended, but the discontent hasn’t. Neither have the questions.

Twitter: @nathanfenno


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