Tuesday, August 9, 2016

It smells like Olympic spirit

Once again the Olympics are upon us, and the Games seem to be going smoothly despite all the worries whether Brazil could pull it off.  Still, there was some turbulence in the water, as Yulia Efimova squared off against Lilly King in the first controversial event of the long fortnight.

Efimova shouldn't have even been in the pool, but was granted an 11th hour reprieve when the sports body FINA couldn't conclusively prove how long melodonium stays in the blood system.  Efimova claims she stopped taking the performance enhancing drug last year before it was banned, even though she tested positive in April.  Her appearance in the 100-meter breaststroke heats led to a chorus of boos from the audience, but Yulia embraced her "bad girl" image, wagging her finger at the crowd when she won her semi-final race over the previous Olympic champion Ruta Meilutyte.  Lilly King was having none of it, winning her semi-final race with a time 0.02 seconds faster than Efimova and so she wagged her finger in turn.  This set up the most anticipated race so far, as the two would finally be in the pool together.

The media loved it.  Here was the United States presented as the clean, virtuous Lilly King and Russia as the brazen, dirty Yulia Efimova.  All we needed was Michael Buffer to announce the final race.  The event lived up to its billing with King pulling away from Efimova in the last ten meters to set a new Olympic record and win the gold medal.

Russia has been under a cloud ever since The World Anti-Doping Agency determined that there was a systemic cover-up of doping violations by Russian authorities dating back to 2008.  The whistleblower was one of the Russian officials.  WADA only had time to investigate the track and field team prior to the Rio Games, issuing a damning verdict that the entire team should be banned.  Russia appealed to the IOC, which decided not to go with the blanket ban, but instead ban those athletes specifically charged with doping.  This list extended beyond the track and field team and included seven swimmers, Efimova among them.

This was a chance to head off state-sanctioned doping at the pass.  As we all might recall, doping was prevalent in the days of the Soviet Union, as the country was determined to beat the United States on the international level.  East Germany also became notorious for performance enhancing drugs, quickly becoming one of the top sports countries of the world.  Doping was also widely seen throughout the Eastern European satellite nations.

Vladimir Putin has vowed to restore this former glory, bringing back the Soviet-style program replete with heavy-handed tactics to get the most out of his country's athletes.  It worked for Russia at Sochi, where they won the most gold medals in a Winter Olympics since 1994.  Putin is now determined to restore Russia's summer potential by investing heavily in sports across the country.

The WADA report was damning, as it showed just how far Russian officials go to get their desired results.  Yulia Efimova is Russia's most visible face, as she is a four-time world champion since she was last suspended for doping charges in 2013.  The country would have sent a clear message it was cleaning up its act if it had accepted her suspension, but Yulia had the potential to win three gold medals.  When every medal counts, you go out of your way to get her reinstated, which is exactly what Russian officials did.

It is not to say that other countries don't engage in similar tactics.  The Olympics are big business.  For swimmers and track and field athletes this is their moment of glory.  Very few people follow their sports between Olympic Games, so this is their opportunity to strike lucrative advertising deals that will carry them through the long four years between games.  In the past, we have seen athletes stripped of their gold medals, like Ben Johnson who tested positive following his record-breaking performance in the 1988 Games, but it had been a long time since a country had been singled out for systemic doping violations.

The worst apart is that this is essentially an extortion racket where athletes are expected to use drugs and then pay officials to cover it up.  Putin has said he will bring the officials involved to justice, but like so many things in Russia, this doesn't happen without tacit state approval.

You really can't take it out on Yulia.  She is just part of this labyrinthine scheme that also involves Olympic officials from other countries to turn a blind eye.  Obviously, the IOC didn't want to end up in a similar scandal that rocked FIFA and so went soft on Russia for fear a broader cover-up might get exposed.   For the most part, the IOC has chosen to accentuate the positive this Olympics, sneaking banned Russian swimmers into the heats, hoping that no one is looking.   But, it was hard to miss Yulia, the golden girl of the Russian swimming team.

Efimova will get another shot at a gold in the 200 m breaststroke, where she will meet Lilly King again, and may also compete in the 400 m medley relay.  There will probably be more boos, but now that she is in the water the other swimmers have to deal with her.  This is the way it goes.

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