Tuesday, August 9, 2016

In Defense Of Yulia Efimova

This whole thing started, for me at least, at dinner last night when I was looking at betting lines for Day 3 of the Olympics. Gambling makes everything more fun, and that is especially true for sports that you don't really understand or care about.

Last night, the coverage was very heavy on the swimming. The NBC broadcast featured four medal races between 9:00 and 10:00, and swimming seemed to be the talk of the internet. Okay great, we're going to be watching it and talking about it anyway, we might as well throw a little juice on some swimmers.

Three out of the four races were no-go, though. Sun Yang was always going to win the 200m freestyle, and both 100m backstroke contests could have gone four separate ways. Neither of those situations are good for business.

But, in the final medal race of the night, there was a two-horse race with a little bit of additional drama. American Lilly King took exception to Russian Yulia Efimova's postgame celebration in the semifinals, and had this to say:
The narrative for EVERYONE on the internet was "Yeah Go Lilly! USA! Fuck That Russian Girl! Steroids are bad!" The crowd in the goddamn Olympic arena booed this 24-year-old girl and brought her to tears. Great, America wins and the Russians lose and everyone is happy.

Except there's some additional information that was maybe just a little bit buried by the NBC broadcast and your dumb friends on Twitter.

Part One: The Drugs

From The Guardian:
Efimova tested positive for a banned steroid in 2013, and then again this winter for meldonium. She claimed she had stopped taking meldonium before it was outlawed but the drug was still in her system, and she was allowed to compete after the Internationl Swimming Federation lifted the ban after advice from the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is further researching the drug. (source)
It's been established that basically everyone in Russia - from the top of the government down to the trainers and athletes - was involved in an enormous blood doping scheme. This was not necessarily Yulia's choice, but that's how the Olympic sports teams handled themselves in Russia.

And then they all got busted after the rest of the world discovered meldonium's performance-enhancing nature and banned it in January. Like, only six months ago, January. Then Yulia stopped taking it. In January.

"But Jay, she didn't stop! She still failed a test this winter and was suspended again!" WINTER. Like, maybe, at most, one month after the shit was banned.

And then the World Anti-Doping Agency did a bit more research and figured out that, oh yeah, maybe your body doesn't immediately recycle everything inside of it in less than five weeks (stoners know what I'm talking about).

And, thus, right before the biggest competition of this Russian girl's life, the International Swimming Federation cleared her to compete with the other 174 countries that sent swimmers to Rio. Because she was not on drugs.

Part Two: The Finger

You saw it in that video above - when Efimova won her semifinal heat to secure her spot in the medal race, she held up one finger. One finger, as in she just fucking came in first place! What the fuck is wrong with that?

"Oh, that's so cocky, she didn't even win anything yet!"

You know who else hadn't won anything yet? The girl standing in a coat in front of the a worldwide audience wagging her finger at one of her competitors when she herself hadn't even GOTTEN IN THE GODDAMN POOL YET.

Okay, I'm getting hot. Let's just carry this thought right through to the next section.

Part Three: Lilly King

Lilly King is the worst kind of athlete.

She wants to play both sides of the aisle - Nice Sweet Innocent Girl From Indiana and Big Tough Bully - and NBC seems totally content just letting her be completely two-faced. You can't be America's sweetheart and also be calling out innocent competitors and bullying them in front of the whole world.

Let's use another member of the American team who was featured prominently last night as a frame of reference. That guy also happens to be the most decorated Olympian of recorded history.

You saw it in Michael Phelps' eyes before and after his semifinal race against Chad Guy Bertand Le Clos OIS (that's his real full name, plus his distinction for excellent achievement in athletics).

Before the race, Le Clos did a whole shadowboxing routine right in front of a brooding Phelps. Four years ago in London, Le Clos barely beat Phelps for the gold medal in the 200m butterfly, and he seemed to want to taunt the big guy about it in Rio.

And taunt he did. He did the shadowboxing, and then he stared him down before and DURING THE RACE. And, after Le Clos taunted Phelps more significantly more than Efimova had taunted anybody about anything  - Phelps spoke to NBC's Michelle Tafoya.

Tafoya was BEGGING him to react to the antics and not simply the swimming. You could see the sparkle in his eye when he realized what was happening, and I almost expected him to go Bad Boy Phelps and take the bait.

But Phelps, being the experienced athlete that he is, elected to focus exclusively on the race. That's why today you will see a lot of pictures of Phelps' angry face like this:

And you might even see some attempted memes like this:

But you won't see any electric quotes attacking a competitor in front of millions of people and effectively ruining their career. Because, at the end of the day, the Olympics is a sports competition and it's supposed to bring people together. Quick sidestep: these gymnasts are from North and South Korea, whose countries hate each other even more than we hate Russia. No slander or hatred here:

Let's get back to Phelps electing not to call our Le Clos in his postgame press conference. To be fair, I'm sure Le Clos will be 100% fine if Phelps obliterates him in the pool and ethers him in the postgame interview tonight. He seems like the stereotypical rich South African cocky guy. He'll survive. 

But, as the saying goes, It's Different For Girls. 

Yulia Efimova will be the only non-American swimmer that anybody remembers from this Olympics, and the only reason her name garnered any attention was Lilly King's needless call-out. She's not going to be a three-time Olympian, or the girl who was once named the Breakthrough Swimmer Of The Year, or the one-time world record holder in the 50m and 200m, or the girl who has lived and trained on American soil for the last five years. 

Nope. She's just going to be that girl who was shooting up with a crazy third world drug to turn her into a musclehead she-hulk. 

Oh wait, what? Maria Sharapova was taking the same drug when she got suspended from tennis? And she had been taking it for TEN YEARS?

This is the "drug cheating" that Lilly King plastered on Yulia Efimova's face. Meldonium improves blood flow, and the Russian coaches started giving it to everyone they possibly could. It's approved by the FDA for use in the United States. It would, however, provide an advantage for swimmers. And then, when it was deemed illegal by the IOC, many of those swimmers who had been using it stopped. 

But don't tell that to Lilly King though, because she seems to think that Efimova blasted herself full of HGH right before the race:
Afterwards, King was unrepentant on her earlier comments about Efimova. “I basically said what everybody’s thinking,” she said after the final. “They were glad I spoke out and I had the guts to say that and I appreciate their support."
Donald Trump parallels aside,  I would think that anyone who supports any kind of athletics would be against one competitor bullying another - and using media and the crowd to antagonize that person.

At the end of the day, when they got in the pool together in August, all of the competitors were CLEARED BY THE WORLD ANTI-DOPING AGENCY to compete fairly. And "queen bee" (I don't think I could possibly make those air quotes big enough) Lilly King decided to bully this girl around and effectively ruin her Olympic experience and her career from this point forward.

No magazine is going to feature her. No major worldwide apparel company is going to sponsor her. NBC made sure that she was shown strictly in a negative light, and there's probably no chance she ever comes back from it. I won't pretend to know enough about Russia to know how she's going to be treated there, but I have to think all of this negative press will be the end of her in the mainstream American and European media.

So goodbye forever Yulia, enjoy your silver medal. Maybe we'll see you sometime in the future.

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