Olympic swimmers usually save their talking for the water, but American swimmer Lilly King, who won the gold medal in last night's 100-meter breaststroke, is not the average Olympian. She's a swimmer who seems like she might be comfortable talking trash on a basketball court. The drama began when Lilly’s closest rival in the event, Russia's Yulia Efimova, who has failed multiple drug tests, held up her finger to signal No. 1 after a strong swim in the qualifying race.
Seems innocent enough, right? Not for Lilly, who threw shade with a finger wag that went instantly viral.
Lilly later told the media: “You’re shaking your finger ‘No. 1’ and you’ve been caught for drug cheating. I’m not a fan." Neither was the audience, who booed Yulia heavily as she entered last night's event. And neither is America, which sees Lilly as the clean athlete hero who beat a drug-doping Russian villain. But let’s not rush to cast stones in the pool just yet.
Yulia moved to California to train in her late teens, living far from the state-sponsored Russian doping system. For what it's worth, Yulia’s two drug test failures were garden variety rather than injections of blood boosters. The first, in 2013, was due to Yulia buying an over the counter supplement containing DHEA (a natural steroid banned for anyone competing at the Olympics) at a local GNC. According to NBC Olympics: "For a world champion and Olympic medalist to be buying stuff at GNC is, by any measure, a mistake. Efimova compounded the mistake by relying on the salesperson for advice, alleging she believed the clerks 'at vitamin stores in the United States were well-educated and knowledgeable concerning the products they sold.'" Yulia's mistake—or crime, depending on how you look at it—was also compounded by the fact that her English is self-taught and very limited.
This might be total baloney, or it might not. Regardless, a panel did criticize the Russian Swimming Federation for not providing Yulia with an anti-doping education.
Yulia's second drug test fail was just this past March, when she tested postive for a substance called meldonium, which was commonly taken by Russian athletes (it was unavailable outside of Baltic states) to increase blood flow and improve excercise capacity. However, this charge was dismissed as the World Anti-Doping Agency had banned the substance only a couple of months before Yulia tested positive. The agency couldn't be sure if Yulia had adhered to the ban, only to have the drug stay in her system. Yulia, who admitted fault in her first drug test fail, explained: “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 out of your body six months and doping control is coming, like, after two months, tested you and you’re positive. This is your fault?”
Of course, it's also unclear how long the benefit of meldomium might work towards an athlete's advantage, making it understandable why clean athletes would feel incensed at competing with anyone who had recently taken the drug.
Yulia was initially banned from competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but was allowed back in at the very last minute. The Olympic Committe hasn't fully explained the decision. Without knowing all of the details, it doesn't seem fair to demonize Efimova just yet. Last night after Yulia won the silver medal, she cried for about five minutes straight. It's not hard to imagine getting booed by the crowd, being stared down by Lilly, and watching Lilly slap the water in her lane after the race (which Lilly claimed was not a taunt) all had something to do with her high emotions. Because Yulia, too, has trained her whole life for this moment.