Let's Stop Demonizing Yulia Efimova

by Amée LaTour

Following Monday's 100-meter Olympic breaststroke competition, in which U.S. swimmer Lilly King placed first and Russia's Yulia Efimova second, Martin Rogers of USA Today wrote an article about Efimova's emotional reaction following the race. Rogers introduced the athlete as "Russian drug cheat Yulia Efimova," then described how she "wept uncontrollably" and "sobbed hysterically." In her victory remarks, King pointed out that she was proud to have won "clean." Ahead of the race, a video of King wagging her finger at a screen featuring Efimova nearly broke the internet. Efimova is being demonized as an immoral doper, but we ought to take a look at the facts.

It is true that Efimova was suspended for 16 months due to a positive drug test result in 2013, and she had a positive result again in March 2016, which threatened to keep her out of the Rio Games. One thing to know is that the tests were not positive for the same substance. And the circumstances of each instance are different; the first positive may have resulted from a careless but accidental mistake, and the second may not have actually violated World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules. It's easy to equate a positive test result with proof of intentional cheating, but it could also be a bit more complicated than that.

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Swimming World Magazine reported that in 2013, Efimova tested positive for DHEA, a substance that is not illegal, but is against WADA's rules for pro athletes. The substance was linked back to an L-carnitine supplement she had purchased at a GNC store in California, where she has lived for years. She tested negative several times in the month preceding her use of the supplement, then had the single positive result after taking it for one week once her former L-carnitine supplement ran out.

Efimova claimed ignorance of wrongdoing, though acknowledged that she should have compared the ingredient list to WADA's banned substances list. FINA, the international governing body of water sports, concluded that she did not intend to break the rules for performance enhancement purposes, and therefore suspended her for 16 months instead of the standard two years.

The second positive test result involved meldonium, a heart medication manufactured in Latvia. WADA placed a ban on the medication in January. Since then, over 170 athletes have tested positive, The New York Times reported. But many of these athletes, like Efimova, were still allowed to participate in competitions. That's because WADA acknowledged that it did not know how long the substance stayed in the body after ingested, meaning many of the positive results could have occurred because athletes took the medication prior to the ban taking effect.


Efimova claimed that this is what happened in her case. In a statement regarding the result, she said (translated by Maria Dobysheva):

[T]he last time I took meldonium was due to a doctor's order and when it was legal. I made sure it was legal and read the description before treatment. Why it appeared in my system months after I stopped taking it, experts are figuring out now.

When it comes down to it, there's a whole lot we don't know for sure about Efimova's case. We have her claims and the rulings of WADA and FINA. But we've also heard about the state-sanctioned Russian doping scandal that was recently uncovered, when an anti-doping lab director confirmed that the country's government instructed him to hide positive test results for athletes who competed in the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. Efimova's Russian. It's easy to jump to conclusions.

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It's harder to attend to nuance, but more accurate and humane to do so. The narrative of "pure American hero versus evil Russian doper" is seductive. King's win is not just an athletic victory; it's about good triumphing over evil (or so the story goes). This may light a fire within U.S. spectators and writers, but Efimova is a human being, and we've been too quick to cast her in the role of villain.