Why Yulia Efimova Isn’t Quite the Supervillan of the Olympic Swim Meet

Well, the Olympic swim meet is over, and, as expected, our aquatic heroes reached new heights, with relative newcomers smashing world records and old swimming mainstays rewriting history set in years B.C. But any good hero story needs a darker side, and outside of the algae in the diving well, the women’s 100-meter breaststroke provided it.

In that race, American Lily King turned in an exceptional performance, defeating Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova. Immediately after the race, social and traditional media erupted in a Cold War-esque frenzy, citing Efimova’s checkered doping past as proof that the great and good American had triumphed over the evil Russian lady who couldn’t even beat her while cheating. At the time, I rolled my eyes, thinking it was a more than a little over the top. And, diving into the particulars of Efimova’s case, it’s not clear that she violated doping rules in the first place. Instead of focusing on her debatable transgressions, the criticism would probably be better directed at the international organizations that let her participate in the first place.

Regarding Efimova’s doping, she was caught using a steroid hormone, allegedly through a dietary supplement whose labels she did not read, in 2013. As a result, she served a 16-month ban from swimming and had her records set during the period where she tested positive vacated. This definitely was a mistake, and she could feasibly be classified as a “drug cheat” for this violation alone. However, she served her punishment, and she had every right to return to swimming as long as she followed anti-doping protocol.

Now comes the less clear part: this year, she tested positive for meldonium, a heart disease drug that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned in January 2016. Meldonium was popular with Eastern European athletes because it supposedly increased blood oxygenation. As a result, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) and WADA gave her a provisional ban in March 2016. However, WADA itself has said that it does not know how long meldonium needs to clear the body, and it has given athletes who tested positive for the drug after the deadline the ability to appeal any doping sanction. With this in mind, Efimova appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and won, since the amounts of the substance in her blood were extremely low in positive samples.

Could she have been cheating all along and taking low levels of meldonium to game the system? Yes. Could she also have just been following anti-doping rules and stopped taking the drug when WADA banned it, only to have small amounts show up in her body after the deadline? Also yes.

Unfortunately, we will never know which scenario is the one that actually happened, given the questions still surrounding the science behind meldonium. If the first scenario is true and it comes out that she has been doping at the Olympics, then she deserves all the criticism that has come her way, and she should rightfully serve another long or potentially permanent ban from international swimming. However, it is premature to say that she deserves such public treatment now. Efimova was simply following the outlets available to her to prove her potential innocence to the best of her ability for her chance to compete in the world’s most visible swim meet.

There is a deeper argument to be made about what Efimova’s participation in the Olympics means in relation to Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme. The leaders of FINA, the organization ultimately determining Russian participation in the 2016 Olympic swim meet per International Olympic Committee (IOC) criteria, have praised Vladimir Putin and granted him awards he might not have earned. It is right to question FINA’s neutrality with regard to Russia. However, FINA was the organization that placed the provisional ban on Efimova in the first place, and it was the ruling from the unaffiliated Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS) that led to the overturn of the ban on the grounds that she could be competing clean under WADA’s own rules. We can debate whether the CAS ruling really proved her innocence beyond a reasonable doubt, which are the criteria under which the IOC allowed Russian participation in the Olympics, but I’m not sure we will ever get there given the lack of clarity surrounding meldonium. In any case, these questions of burden of proof should be directed at the CAS, the IOC, and FINA, and not at Efimova, who navigated this convoluted system to the best of her ability.

It definitely is easier to defend athletes that have not danced around international regulations like Efimova has in 2016. For this reason, Lily King should be commended for her strong public stance against any performance-enhancing drugs, and if everyone follows the rules like she appears to do, then sports in general would be more fun to follow. But King’s foil, Yulia Efimova, does not yet deserve the public shaming she received right after the 100-meter breaststroke. The details of her 2016 case show that she easily could have competed within WADA’s own rules, and she worked within the legal avenues available to her in order to compete at the Olympics. The vitriol directed at her should be pointed at FINA, the IOC, and the CAS rather than at Efimova in particular.


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