Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova had been deemed one of the villains of the Rio Olympics, first coming under harsh criticism during her competition with finger-wagging American swimmer Lilly King for being a "drug cheat." The International Olympics Committee has banned the Russian athlete for doping on two separate occasions, and Efimova was originally barred from competing in this year's summer games. But thanks to a reversal of the ruling, Efimova has competed (and been under intense scrutiny) at the 2016 Olympics. In her latest defense, Efimova made a great point about sexism in the Olympics, and in doing so, simultaneously called out American swimmer Michael Phelps.
Efimova's problems with doping began when she was caught taking a supplement that contained a banned steroid in 2013. She was then put on a 16-month ban. Since failing that drug test, the 24-year-old has maintained that she didn't realize the over-the-counter supplement contained the banned substance. Her second offense occurred when her doping sample contained traces of meldonium in her system, provisionally banning her from competing in the Olympics. But the substance wasn't banned until Jan. 1 and can stay in your system for months. Following a recommendation from the World Anti-Doping Agency, her ban was lifted.
The swimmer has been placed under intense scrutiny, and was even booed during her Olympics debut. The 24-year-old defended her right to be in the Olympics on Thursday, Aug. 11 when she asked American swimmer Lilly King — who argued that anyone caught doping should never be allowed into the Olympics — what King would then do about Phelps. Phelps was previously banned from competing for smoking marijuana in 2009, and again in 2014 for a DUI.
"Then what would she say about Michael Phelps?" Efimova asked, according to The Guardian. She went on to say:
I am of course not for doping, and I have never done it on purpose. But I know very many cases in which people do it out of not knowing or out of stupidity or out of naivete. There must always be another chance. When you drive a car and break a rule, you just get a ticket. You don't lose your license for life or get put in jail.
But of course, there remains an important distinction: Efimova was caught using performance enhancing drugs, while Phelps was using recreational ones. In the context of their sport, this makes a vast difference. However, Efimova's point regarding the public's ability to forgive Phelps of his past offenses still stands. Sure, Phelps was temporarily suspended from the sport and did lose a major sponsor, but in no way was he vilified to the extent Efimova has been.
Could that forgiveness be in part because Phelps is a man? Absolutely. As we've seen throughout sexist coverage of the Olympics, men tend to receive higher praise. While some may see Efimova's comment as a personal deflection, it nevertheless speaks to a wider problem about how women are treated in sports and the standards they must adhere to. When those standards are broken, they seem to have a more difficult time climbing back up to the top.