Is Yulia Efimova Really the Villain We Think She Is?

Photo Credit: Lee Jin-Man/Associated Press

If you’ve been following the Olympics over the past couple of nights, you’re probably aware of the evolving spat between swimmers Lily King of the United States and Yulia Efimova of Russia. But if you’re not up on things, here’s a recap of recent events:

Efimova and King were swimming in two semifinal races on Sunday to qualify for the 100-meter breaststroke final on Monday. Efimova swam in the first race and won her heat with a time of 1:05:72. After the race, Efimova, while still in the pool, faced in the direction of a television camera and gave a Dikembe Mutombo-esque finger wag. King, Efimova’s top competitor, was watching the race on a television monitor in preparation for her heat and had this priceless reaction to Efimova’s celebration:

King would have another response to the Russian in her race, winning her heat to qualify for Monday night’s final. Her time? 1:05:70, or two one-hundredths of a second faster than Efimova’s interval. She responded exactly as you would expect: with a finger wag. After winning her semifinal, King had this to say about Efimova and the finger wagging:

Basically, what happened this morning was that I finished and then I waved my finger a little bit, because that’s kind of how I am. Then tonight just now Yulia got done with her swim and I am watching in the ready room — and there she is there shaking her finger. So then I got done and I beat her time so I waved my finger again. People probably think I am serving it up a little bit but that is just how I am.

That’s just my personality. I’m not this sweet little girl, that’s not who I am. If I do need to stir it up to put a little fire under my butt or anybody else then that’s what I’m going to do.

Some background: Efimova tested positive for Meldonium in March but was cleared right before the games to compete (more on that later). But wow, that’s some pretty strong stuff. An Olympic athlete openly saying that she’s basically a mean girl is not something you see every day. King’s comments set up an epic final for Monday night, one that would seemingly pit good versus evil, dirty versus clean, and honest versus dishonest.

Before the race, as the swimmers were standing behind the blocks waiting for the commencement of the proceedings, King had this comical “exchange” with the Russian:

Many were in King’s corner, too: Efimova was booed as she was introduced before the start of the event. After this absurd, WWE-like buildup, though, the race began. It went fairly predictably, with King and Efimova swimming one-two for most of the 100-meter duration. Despite a late charge from Efimova, the 19-year-old American held off the competition to win gold in the event. After winning the race, King commented that it was incredible to win a gold medal, especially “knowing I did it clean”. The implication was very, very obvious; Efimova had cheated her way into the race and King was calling her out on it.

Since her crusade against Efimova and basically the entire country of Russia began, King has been hailed a hero by many in the American media. Finally, here was an Olympic athlete who won against drug cheats and criticized the system that allowed them to compete in the Olympics in the first place. And King didn’t just denounce the Russians for their doping: she later said that Americans such as Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin, who had both previously tested positive for banned substances, should also be banned from the Summer Games. To her credit, she’s an equal-opportunity offender; she calls out all athletes who cheat instead of only those from one country or those she’s competing against.

But the problem is that Yulia Efimova is being painted as a villainous cheater today. Her story, in actuality, is really not that cut-and-dry.

In 2013, Efimova was given a 16-month ban from competition after testing positive for DHEA, a prescription steroid. Efimova served her ban and returned to the water; however, she would fail another drug test this past March, this time for Meldonium, a drug added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances at the start of the new year. Since January 1, it has been reported that “hundreds” of Russian athletes have tested positive for the substance, including tennis star Maria Sharapova, Efimova, and many others. The catch? WADA freely admitted in April that it had no clue how quickly or slowly the drug can enter and leave the human body after consumption; because of this finding, the agency was forced to admit that it could not determine for sure if the athletes who had tested positive for the drug had taken it before January 1. Because WADA could not determine how long it took the drug to leave the body, Efimova and other Russian athletes were controversially cleared to compete in the Olympics.

That being said, it is impossible to defend Russia against its state-sponsored doping ring, one that got the nation’s entire Paralympic team banned from the games as well as many athletes in Summer Olympics. It was very surprising and yet totally unsurprising that the Russians were not banned from competition altogether (this is the IOC we’re dealing with here). Efimova is far from alone in her participation with Russian doping; however, it is fair to wonder whether or not she fully knew of the drug’s presence on the banned substance list and if she took it before January 1. Granted, as an Olympic athlete, she should probably be keenly aware to WADA’s banned substance list. But I’d be willing to bet that the Russians don’t exactly inform their athletes of what substances they can and cannot take under WADA’s rules. In fact, it’s evident that the Russians have been breaking those rules for some time now.

And this is meant in no way to take away from Lilly King. She was very courageous, not only in winning the race but calling out her main competitor for supposedly cheating her way into the event. It is 100% true that the IOC should treat drug offenders with the same toughness that King exemplified in her words to the media over the past couple of days. King won fair and square, without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs or any other substance that would have given her an artificial edge over her competition. She should be applauded for her stand.

However, we should also ask ourselves to reconsider our strong stance against Efimova. While I am in no way defending the use of performance-enhancing drugs, there is no concrete proof that Efimova has been using during the calendar year. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that there were any banned substances in her system during the race. No matter what happened in previous years, it is more likely than not that Efimova was clean during her race against King. That means that they were on the same plane when they competed against each other and the other swimmers. King won, Efimova did not. While it’s possible that Efimova could have been doping, there is no proof.

So please, go ahead and hail Lilly King a hero today. I have no problem with that; she’s a warrior who pointed out the inadequacies of Olympic drug testing for all to see. It’s true that she’s cast correctly in this motion picture.

That’s not necessarily the case for Yulia Efimova.

One Reply to “Is Yulia Efimova Really the Villain We Think She Is?”

  1. Since when did DHEA become a prescription steroid? Maybe in other countries, but it’s certainly not in the US. I can walk into any health food store and find shelves of it, or even Wal-Mart or my local grocery store.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *