Doping Outrage Reaches a Tipping Point in Rio — WSJ

It took a teenager from Indiana to pierce an athletic culture of silence.

By Sara Germano and Matthew Futterman 
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RIO DE JANEIRO — American teenager Lilly King began the Rio Olympics as an unknown swimming hopeful and wound up with a starring role in the push by clean athletes for tougher sanctions against rivals who violate doping rules.

King’s victory in the 100-meter breaststroke Monday night put an exclamation point on a very public two-day confrontation with Russian Yulia Efimova, who has previously served a drug suspension and who successfully appealed for her inclusion into these Olympics at the eleventh hour.

Before and after her win, King pierced a culture that has long offered quiet acceptance toward athletes returning to competition after serving doping offenses. She insisted that Efimova’s previous offense should have barred her from the Games, and King wagged her finger at the Russian to make her case even more bluntly.

After extending her tart commentary to include a formerly suspended member of the U.S. track team, King was quickly backed by other Olympians including swimming superstar Michael Phelps.

At the post-race press conference, Efimova said that many athletes “simply watch TV and believe everything that is written and shown on TV. They don’t try and trade places with me.”

The controversy ignited a debate that has been smoldering over the past year, as a series of new doping scandals has fueled the frustration of athletes who feel anti-doping officials have failed to contain the problem. And it has given momentum to the idea that governing sports bodies should dole out much harsher penalties, including total bans.

“It’s an important voice that has been growing louder for some time,” said Travis T. Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, where officials were thrilled to see top athletes making such public statements about the issue on the biggest stage. He said his organization had seen a significant increase in the number of calls it has received from athletes, comparing it to a high-crime neighborhood that can only change when residents say they won’t take it anymore.

“We hear from athletes all the time about the need to protect their right to compete clean,” he said. “It’s a real turning point in the fight for clean sport when athletes stand up and demand a level playing field.”

Before King spoke out, there was little sense that a lament heard for years within elite circles would soon explode on sport’s largest stage.

“I am just really proud to compete for the USA and be successful for them knowing I am competing clean and doing what I know is right,” King said in a tense news conference early Tuesday in Rio. Earlier, she had said “a level playing field would be preferred.”

She didn’t stop there. King later said that Justin Gatlin, a sprinter who has served two drug suspensions, shouldn’t be on the U.S. team in Rio. Gatlin did not respond to a request for comment.

That exposed an awkward reality: The U.S. track and field team in Rio features several athletes who previously were sanctioned for doping, including Gatlin, Tyson Gay, LaShawn Merritt, and high jumper Inika McPherson.

Mr. Gay and Ms. McPherseon couldn’t immediately be reached. An agent for Mr. Merritt emphasized his infraction occurred from an out of competition sample collected during the off season.

In total the U.S. team has 11 athletes who have tested positive for banned substances, from PEDs, to recreational drugs, to banned medications.

King’s broadside was soon echoed by Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, who said “I think people should be speaking out more. You know I think (King) is right.”

Australian star Mack Horton publicly criticized an opponent who tested positive for a banned substance. Both Horton and the 19-year-old King were hailed as crusaders on social media.

Swimmers, including Australian star Mack Horton, also voiced support, and the 19-year-old King was hailed as a crusader on social media.

“I’m glad she’s in favor of clean sport,” Russian Swimming Federation President Vladimir Salnikov said of King. Salnikov, a four-time Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union, said he was prepared to “absolutely support” life-time bans for athletes caught doping. But he quickly cautioned that it would be difficult to implement.

Max Siegel, chief executive of USA Track & Field, condemned doping but said he sees his job as that of an enforcer of anti-doping rules, which currently permit athletes to return from doping bans. “I know exactly what (King) is calling for, and it doesn’t change the way the rules currently exist. My job is to apply the rules fairly across the board.”

The public has long expressed cynicism about what is seen as rampant rule-breaking in nearly all corners of the sports world, including track, swimming, cycling and U.S. professional sports such as baseball. Athletes, meanwhile, usually remain silent — especially during the prime of their careers and during a massive worldwide event like the Olympics.

No one said anything in 1976, when East German women nearly swept swimming, while it was widely suspected they were involved in what was later revealed to be a massive, state-run doping program. Athletes were largely silent in 1996 when Ireland’s Michelle Smith, later banned from the sport for tampering with a urine sample, emerged from mediocrity to win three golds.

The current Olympic outcry comes after mounting frustration among athletes over two scathing World Anti-Doping Agency investigations. The reports, issued in November and July, confirmed a six-year PED conspiracy in Russia that officials were first tipped off about in 2010, as well as a broken enforcement system current and former athletes say is scattershot and forgiving.

Russia has pledged to change its anti-doping infrastructure but has denied that thelab at the Sochi Olympics was corrupted. WADA officials have said that jurisdictional issues and concern for the safety of the whistleblower prevented them from moving more quickly.

With tension mounting, Efimova became the lightning rod. She had received a 16-month ban in 2013 for using an illegal supplement. Then, earlier this year, she faced a lifetime ban after testing positive for low levels of the heart medication meldonium, which was added to the banned substances list on January 1. She claimed she had stopped using it in December, and FINA lifted a provisional suspension. Efimova had never listed meldonium on medication forms for anti-doping officials.

“Fear of retribution keeps people quiet,” said Kara Goucher, a two-time Olympic runner who just missed qualifying this year. “There has been a noticeable change in the last year or so….Clean athletes are really fed up and feel like our federations and anti-doping bodies have let us down. The tide is beginning to turn.”

Write to Sara Germano at sara.germano[a]wsj.com and Matthew Futterman at matthew.futterman[a]wsj.com

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