“Ban the Russians!”
Like “Equal Play, Equal Pay” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” it’s a catchy slogan, but it merits further investigation.
Plenty of columnists have ripped the IOC for allowing any Russian athletes into the 2016 Olympics, arguing that the organizers should’ve issued a blanket ban in the wake of the McLaren report, which unveiled a shadowy state-sanctioned doping and concealment program not seen since the bad old days of East Germany.
The ruling forced each sport’s federation to decide on Russian participation. All track and field athletes, all weightlifters and a handful of others were tossed out.
But others were allowed, and the issue came to the forefront in the Western media not when two Russian men won judo gold, not when three fencers and two shooters won medals for Russia, not even when a Russian in the historically doping-heavy sport of cycling took silver (granted, that just happened this morning), but when American swimmer Lilly King wagged a finger at Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who trains in Southern California but has served one doping suspension and avoided a second in the muddy realm of meldonium tests.
King won their showdown in the pool, a nice feel-good moment for Americans and anti-doping authorities. And that led to this awkward press conference, in which Efimova was asked whether she should be in Rio and King was asked whether Team USA should expel athletes such as Justin Gatlin, who has been twice punished in doping regulations.
The vilification of Efimova didn’t sit well with columnist Alan Abrahamson, one of the few Olympic writers who pays attention to Olympic sports outside the Olympics.
Efimova, now 24, is a four-time breaststroke world champion. She is the 2012 bronze medalist in the women’s 200m breast. She has trained at the University of Southern California; indeed, she moved to Southern California in her late teens. This means many things, among them: She has submitted to American drug testing.
Abrahamson goes on to compare Efimova’s suspension to that of U.S. swimmer Jessica Hardy, who used the “tainted supplement” defense to get a reduced suspension, come back to win medals and appear in chocolate milk ads. But Efimova, he says, is somehow beyond redemption.
You have someone whose English was — and remains — not great, who when she bought a tainted supplement at GNC was in her early 20s, who relied on a friendly American clerk to help her — and now she’s depicted as a world-class villain?
AP columnist John Leicester also saw the gray areas.
Foolish, then, but not Lance Armstrong.
The arbitrators noted that Efimova impressed them “as sincere and honest and appropriately remorseful for her mistake. She did not seek to blame others for her rule violation and she accepted responsibility for her actions.”
These all-important nuances got drowned in the Olympic pool.
Meldonium is tricky. It was added to the banned substance list Jan. 1. Then a lot of Russians and a handful of people from other countries — including one American (see below) — tested positive. WADA ruled that trace amounts lingering from pre-Jan. 1 usage would not be punished, and that’s why Efimova is in the Games.
You can make a counterargument on Efimova. You can say she was reckless with supplements a few years ago. You can also argue that all these meldonium users knew they were cheating before WADA banned the substance, and you can argue that’s a second strike that should keep Efimova out of the Games. Legally, I doubt that argument would stand up (in fact, it didn’t — Efimova appealed and was ruled eligible).
Morally? Ethically? Up to you.
How about banning everyone who’s ever run afoul of doping authorities? Tricky.
The Wall Street Journal looked into the issue and counted 11 U.S. athletes who have positive tests in their past. I compared spreadsheets and came up with 11 names:
The first pattern you’ll notice is that there is no pattern. That brings us to the moral of the story:
Every case is different.
You have LaShawn Merritt, suspended because he failed to realize a “male-enhancement product” included something he can’t take. Most likely not intentional cheating, but not smart by anyone’s account.
Weightlifter Sarah Robles has insisted she was using medication to treat polycystic ovary syndrome. Her suspension ended in time for her to make the team for Rio.
Did you forget about Hope Solo? She received a warning when her medication was flagged.
And notice recreational drugs on the list — if you look at the whole USADA list, you’ll see enough “cannabis” to wonder how many athletes you’ll bump into at a Snoop Dogg or Phish concert.
Do you ban Merritt? Robles? Solo? How about Abby Wambach, who has admitted using recreational drugs during her playing career?
Opinions may vary. These aren’t easy decisions.
But you know damn well that a lot of the people speaking out about Efimova and every Russian judo athlete, sailor or gymnast would scream bloody murder if a U.S. sports hero like Wambach or Robles was banned. (They might concede Gatlin or Merritt because track and field somehow isn’t as inspirational to many in the media.)
And in that sense, Efimova is right. We’re still fighting the Cold War. Because we’re too lazy to get into the nuances or find a new narrative.