Crowd Boos Russian Swimmer Caught Up In Doping Scandal

Aug 9, 2016
Originally published on August 9, 2016 8:00 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Things got uncomfortable at the Olympics in Rio last night. You know the Russian doping scandal? Well, to this point, that story, it seemed all but forgotten. Sure, there were boos when the Russian team marched at the opening ceremony. But mostly, the nearly 280 Russian athletes cleared to compete have done so without controversy. Then came a certain swimming race, which NPR's Tom Goldman covered.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Before last night, the women's 100-meter breaststroke was going to be interesting. It featured a 19-year-old American named Lilly King and a Russian swimmer, Yulia Efimova, who won a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics - interesting but not must-see like a Michael Phelps or a Katie Ledecky race. Then, Sunday, there were sparks between King and the Russian who served a 16-month doping ban from 2013 to 2015. After a qualifying heat, Efimova waved her index finger. King said on TV, you wave your finger, number one, and you've been caught drug cheating? I'm not a fan. Suddenly, the 100 breaststroke final became must see.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Booing).

GOLDMAN: Fans greeted Efimova with boos when she was introduced before the race. King was cheered. It became a roar as the two swam the quick race down and back next to each other in lines four and five. King touched the wall first for a gold medal that suddenly became symbolic.

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LILLY KING: You know, I do think it is a victory for clean sport, and just to show that you can do it while, you know, competing clean your whole life. So that's where I'm at.

GOLDMAN: At a tense and sometimes awkward post-race press conference, King and Efimova sat at opposite ends of a long table, separated by bronze medalist Katie Meili of the U.S. Efimova's eyes were red. She was sobbing talking to reporters earlier. Like hundreds of Russian athletes before these Olympics, she'd been in limbo for weeks. At first, she was banned from Rio because of her previous doping violation. And then just days ago, she won an appeal on the grounds that she couldn't be punished twice for her violation. During the press conference, Efimova seemed on the verge of more tears. But she managed a weak smile talking about her silver medal-winning performance.

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YULIA EFIMOVA: And now I feel, like, really happy because after everything, like, it's a good time. And it's best what I can do right now.

GOLDMAN: Right after the race, King celebrated with her U.S. teammate, neither shook hands with Efimova. King was asked about that moment.

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KING: If I had been in Yulia's position, I would not have wanted to be congratulated by someone who was not speaking highly of me. So if she was wishing to be congratulated, I apologize.

GOLDMAN: Judging by Twitter, no apology is necessary. She's become the Olympics' Rocky, knocking out the evil Russian. But doping is complicated. A question at the press conference underscored how risky it is to adopt the good guy, bad guy narrative. King's USA teammate, track sprint star Justin Gatlin, has served a doping suspension, like Efimova - two, in fact. King was asked if she thinks Efimova shouldn't be in Rio, what about Gatlin?

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KING: People who have been caught for doping offenses should be on the team. No, they shouldn't. It's just something that needs to be, you know, set in stone that this is what we're going to do to settle this and that should be the end of it.

GOLDMAN: But the end of the doping issue hardly is in sight. Track and field, with Justin Gatlin and without a banned Russian track team, is about to consume these Summer Olympics next week. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.