RIO DE JANEIRO — Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova heard her name announced at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, then boos and derisive whistles quickly followed. It was a dramatic shift from the cheers and flag waving that greeted every other swimmer in the semifinal heat of the 100-meter breaststroke Sunday night.
But the three-time Olympian, banned in the past for using performance-enhancing substances, was unfazed.
Efimova won her heat. Message sent. Cue more boos and whistles.
No longer are the 2016 Russian Olympians — those who escaped this year’s doping-related ban and were ruled eligible to compete in Rio — a nameless, faceless mass. They are Efimova, judo gold medalist Beslan Mudranov, air pistol silver medalist Vitalina Batsarashkina, men’s fencing bronze medalist Timur Safin, volleyball player (and flag bearer) Sergei Tetyukhin, gymnast Aliya Mustafina, cyclist Olga Zabelinskaya, and dozens of other potential medal winners.
If ever there were athletes who could defiantly muscle through a doping scandal and shrug off — in some cases, even embrace — their status as the villains of the Olympics, it’s the Russians. And so far, the boos and criticism seem to have simply made them more determined.
As of Monday night, Russia stood tied for third in total medals at these Summer Games with 10 (two gold, five silver and three bronze).
When asked what his Olympic title meant for the Russian team, Mundranov said, “I think my country proves that they still can win gold medals and this is not the last gold. Everybody who came here is well-prepared and did not break down psychologically. We didn’t doubt that we will be allowed to compete.”
The athletes are an easy target for the anger and frustration generated by Russia’s years-long state-organized doping program and the International Olympic Committee’s handling of the scandal. Questions have been raised about the influence Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has over International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach.
Russia is a powerful entity in international sport, willing to spend extravagantly on Olympic events, as evidenced by the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
After a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation found there to be widespread state-sponsored doping in the Russian athletic program, the agency recommended to the IOC in July that all of the country’s athletes be banned from Rio.
But the IOC let individual sports federations determine athlete eligibility. Then a three-person IOC panel cleared 271 competitors and an appeals process went into effect.
So the crowds in Rio are left to call out the Russians, the IOC, the unseemly nature of it all. It’s the best fans can do, short of not using their prized tickets.
Meanwhile, the Russian athletes seem more determined than ever to medal.
After her semifinal heat, Efimova smiled broadly as she walked past reporters, not stopping to answer questions. Earlier, she got into a finger-wagging battle with American swimmer Lilly King. When Efimova won her semifinal heat, she raised her finger to signal “No. 1.” Watching on TV, King mockingly waved her finger back.
In the final on Monday night, it was more of the same for Efimova. She heard boos, then took home a silver medal while King won gold and American Katie Meili claimed bronze.
While King relishes the competitive challenge Efimova presents, when asked if she thought Efimova should be swimming in Rio, she said, “I really don’t want to get into too much of the doping stuff. But it was the IOC’s decision and I’m going to respect that decision, even though it’s not something I agree with.”
Efimova is the reigning world champion in the 100-meter breaststroke who tested positive for the banned steroid DHEA in 2013 and served a 16-month suspension. Earlier this year, she tested positive for the now-banned substance meldonium.
Under the guidelines the IOC announced for Russian athletes’ participation at the Rio Games, Efimova shouldn’t have been eligible for the event. Instead, she won an appeal and was cleared to compete about 24 hours before she stepped onto the pool deck.
Asked about her successful appeal, Efimova said, “I don’t know what to say. It was crazy the last year and a half. I didn’t understand what was going on. I’m just happy to be here and ready to race.”
In some arenas, the Russians find support. On Sunday night, Efimova and the Russian men in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay could see a couple of Russian flags hung over the pool deck by fans, beside Canadian, Chinese, and Brazilian banners. But when the Russian team entered Maracana Stadium in the Opening Ceremony Friday, there was a smattering of boos mixed with muted cheers.
Considering that so many parties should share the blame — the Russians, the IOC, individual sports federations, and WADA for not pushing the issue sooner — that reaction sounded about right.
“In the past two months, for sure, it affected the athletes,” said Tetyukhin, a six-time Olympian. “It was a difficult situation. We were ready for the worst. The whole Russian team could have been banned, but there were reasonable people that took the right decisions. It is clear that there is a doping problem, but the clean athletes, they should not suffer from that.”
Critics, meanwhile, are more inclined to call the decision “cowardly,” “weak-willed,” or “politically motivated.”
But the Russian athletes see themselves as the aggrieved parties, pawns in a political game. Certainly not the villains. No surprise, given the history of Russian athletes being exploited for political purposes.
“The situation had influence on our country and is painful for many athletes,” said judo bronze medalist Natalia Kuziutina. “I guess that we are in the middle of some kind of political war. It is a shame that the athletes have to face the brunt of it. They have the unique chance to compete in the Olympics and they couldn’t realize it. I don’t think it is fair.”
Commenting on the last-minute Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling that allowed her to race, Zabelinskaya, a two-time medalist at the 2012 London Games, added: “I think it’s all politics and I don’t know why they touch the sport. That’s not good. Politics and sport, they don’t go together, that’s not good.”
But like Efimova, Zabelinskaya had a previous doping conviction. So the boos — and the medals — will likely keep coming.
As Efimova and Zavbelinskaya enjoyed their Olympic moments, the International Paralympic Committee announced a blanket ban for all Russian Paralympians for Rio.
“The IPC really stepped up and took their stewardship of the Paralympic movement seriously,” said Joe Walsh, president of Adaptive Sports New England. “To learn that Russian athletes are subjected to state-mandated doping is horrifying. Suspension of the national Paralympic committee was the only responsible action the IPC could have taken.’’
Clearly, that’s a much different message than the one sent by Efimova in the pool.