clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rio 2016: How Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova became the Olympics' biggest villain

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The most heated fight at the Rio Olympics lasted just a minute and four seconds. It was a battle between good and evil, the fair and unfair, the clean and the cheaters, with a hint of a Cold War twist.

The conflict: a 100-meter breaststroke battle between two swimmers, American Lilly King and Russian Yulia Efimova. In Sunday’s qualifying race, King and Efimova came in first and second place, respectively, with times two-hundredths of a second apart.

But as they entered the aquatic center on Monday to swim in the final, there was a lot more riding on their matchup than an Olympic medal. Efimova’s reputation was tainted by controversy, as she had previously failed two drug tests and served a 16-month suspension.

In the end, King defeated Efimova and clinched the gold medal. But her victory was so much more than a personal win.

Who is Yulia Efimova?

Efimova’s story of athletic success is marred by cheating — namely, positive drug tests. Efimova is one of the top swimmers in the world in breaststroke, winning world championships in the 50-meter and 200-meter events since she made her debut at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. At the London games in 2012, she won bronze in the 200-meter breaststroke.

In 2013, Efimova tested positive for DHEA, a banned steroid hormone considered an anabolic agent by the World Anti-Doping Agency. She served a 16-month ban for the substance. Then, earlier this year, Efimova tested positive for meldonium, the substance that Maria Sharapova tested positive for.

A month ago, Efimova wasn’t even supposed to be swimming at the Olympics.

"She was one of seven Russian swimmers barred from the games who had either failed doping tests or were named in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into state-sponsored doping," the Los Angeles Times reported, explaining the International Swimming Federation’s second ban on Efimova

But this past week, Efimova was reinstated, much to the dismay of both swimming fans and fellow athletes.

Why do people hate Efimova?

On Sunday, August 7, Efimova swam in the 100-meter breaststroke preliminary heat. After qualifying for the final with the second-fastest time, Efimova was booed. She raised her finger in a "number one" sign after the race. It was a surreal scene, the type that just doesn’t happen at the Olympics.

Essentially, lots of people — her competitors, NBC’s commentators, fans — believe Efimova doesn’t deserve to be at the Olympics. In their eyes, she got away with cheating. She can’t shake the lingering specter that her qualifying time might be due to doping. And what about the women who don’t dope that she’s already beaten in races?

"You know, you’re shaking your finger number one and you’ve been caught for drug cheating," King said in an interview with NBC after taking the top spot in the 100-meter qualifier. While waiting for her heat to begin, she watched Efimova’s semifinal and wagged her finger at the swimmer.

"I’m just not a fan," King added.

As SB Nation explains, Efimova could have been facing a lifetime ban for her second doping violation. But she was given a sliver of grace.

"Because she tested positive soon after the drug was added to the list of prohibited drugs in January, Efimova was cleared to participate in the Olympics in July," the site reported. "The International Swimming Federation allowed her and many others back in the pool on the basis that it was unclear just how long meldonium stays in the body."

Efimova’s history of cheating put an ugly tint on Monday’s final — making it so much more than just a competition about who can swim the fastest. It became about the integrity of the sport. Efimova became the embodiment of the systemic doping in the Russian athletic system. And Lilly King became the only person who could conceivably beat her.

The 100-meter breaststroke final was amazing and lived up to the hype

Even with all the stakes and beef present in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke final, it lived up to expectations. Thanks to their very close qualifying times, King and Efimova were placed in lanes right next to each other. King stared Efimova down as the two waited to begin the race. When Efimova’s name was announced, the crowd let loose a flurry of boos.

King was slightly ahead of Efimova for about 75 percent of the race. But Efimova has great closing speed and pushed King at the very end — King really had to work to hold onto her scrap of a lead and ended up finishing with a time of 1 minute 4.93 seconds — good enough for gold and a half a second faster than Efimova.

Efimova had been silent leading up to the race, and didn’t outright address the doping allegations until after she won silver. In a post-race interview she intimated that the first doping violation was her fault, but this second was out of her control.

"I have once made mistakes and been banned," Efimova said. "The second time it was not my mistake."

After the race, NBC’s Michele Tafoya asked King if she was trying to send a message with her win.

"I hoped I did, that we can compete clean and still win at the Olympic Games," King said.

When King beat Efimova, she slapped the water in between them in triumph. She shot over a stare. And Efimova didn’t raise her finger.

"There is a way to become the best and do it the right way," King said at press conference after her race. Efimova races again in the 200-meter breaststroke on Wednesday.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.