Team USA wins gold but cheapens Olympics with Cold War-style behavior

Finian Cunningham
Finian Cunningham (born 1963) has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. Originally from Belfast, Ireland, he is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. For over 20 years he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organizations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Now a freelance journalist based in East Africa, his columns appear on RT, Sputnik, Strategic Culture Foundation and Press TV.
YLilly King (USA) and Katie Meili (USA) of USA and Yulia Efimova (RUS) of Russia pose with their medals. © Stefan Wermuth
The public humiliation of Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova by American rivals was an ugly, chauvinistic display of self-righteousness. It was also a disturbing expression of Washington’s belligerent geopolitics by athletes who should be celebrating common humanity.

Team USA, led by 23 gold-medal record holder Michael Phelps, are certainly in awesome winning form at the Rio Olympics, leading the medals table by a far stretch.

But what good is all that precious metal when the athletes show such meanness of spirit and willingness to be stooges for their government’s jingoistic warmongering?

It was the women’s 100m breaststroke final earlier this week where the sharpest action took place. The gold winner was 19-year-old American Lilly King who bested Russia’s Yulia Efimova into second place, taking the silver.

King’s boorish victory splashing of water into her Russian rival’s face was later followed by a blunt refusal to shake Efimova’s hand during the subsequent medal ceremony.

“She’s a drug cheat,” said King. “This is a victory for clean sports.” The American also added that she thought Efimova should not have even been in the event, owing to a past drug ban.

The truculent American was not backing down either, refusing to make any retraction or conciliation. Her team members, including the legendary Michael Phelps, voiced support for King’s pillorying of Efimova. Even the spectators in the American section of the pool gallery had joined the fray by lustily booing the Russian, who at one point broke down in tears.

Russia’s swimming federation president Vladimir Salnikov said the atmosphere at Rio was a disturbing reminder of the Cold War days during the 1980s when the US and Soviet Union each boycotted each other’s games.

Salnikov, who was a four-time gold medalist, said the hostility towards Efimova was inexcusable. He deplored the lack of honor among the American team.

“Efimova has been through a very severe ordeal, and in an atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty I think she showed very strong character – resilience and focus – and so I think she deserved her medal,” he told Reuters news agency.

US media relished indulging in a morality play. The narrative subtext was that decent, law-abiding Americans show themselves to be superior, morally and physically, to those no-good, cheating Russians. God truly does “bless America” for its righteous and exceptional ways.

In this jingoistic view, the Olympics are the sporting corollary of geopolitics. America, so it goes, is right to slap economic sanctions on Russia because it has offended international law in Ukraine; America is right to escalate NATO forces on Russia’s border because it is threatening Europe; America is right to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin because he is propping up a tyrant in Syria by bombing “moderate rebels” and civilians.

The trouble is it is all unsubstantiated and reckless insinuation, if not audacious inversion of reality.

The ban by the International Olympic Committee on some 100 Russian athletes coming to Rio – a third of the whole team – follows the same propaganda dynamic. Bombastic claims of Russian “state-sponsored” doping do not meet any legal standards of proof. It is all based on hearsay and Western media amplification, as with the other geopolitical claims.

Into this maelstrom stepped 24-year-old Yulia Efimova. It was pathetic to see other athletes ripping into her with such vicious abandon.

Let’s deal with some facts here. Efimova is based in the US where she has been training for several years. So much then for claims of “Russian state-sponsored doping”.

She was banned in 2013 after being tested positive for traces of the anabolic steroid DHEA. However, the ban was reduced from the statutory two years to 16 months because her plea was accepted that she was unaware a food supplement she had taken happened to contain traces of the offending hormonal substance.

Then earlier this year, Efimova was tested positive for the heart medication Meldonium. This is the same drug that snagged Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova and several other athletes. The problem arose after Meldonium was put on the proscribed list as a performance-enhancing drug only in January of this year. Commonly taken as a heart-protecting medication, many athletes like Efimova and Sharapova were then found to have traces of the substance still in their bodies after the ban was introduced.

Three days before the Rio games opened, Efimova’s appeal was accepted by the Geneva-based Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) and she was reinstated as “clear” to compete. Thus, the highest sporting appeal tribunal judged the Russian eligible for participation in the Olympics.

Which makes the Americans’ snubbing of her not only unsporting – but legally unwarranted.

Days after the 100m breaststroke final, Efimova went on to win a second silver in the 200m event. Her American rival, Lilly King, failed to qualify for that final.

Efimova has explicitly said she is against doping in sport. She said “everyone deserves a second chance”. It is hard to spurn that sentiment. Not just in sports, but in life generally, surely everyone deserves the opportunity to redeem oneself.

Take the triumph also this week in Rio by American swimmer Anthony Ervin, dubbed the “comeback king”. He won the gold in the men’s 50m freestyle. At age 35, he became the oldest swimmer ever to win the top medal.

Even more remarkable is Ervin’s personal story of redemption. Sixteen years ago, the Californian won gold at the Sydney Olympics at the tender age of 19. Three years later, his life crashed into an abyss of mental depression, drug abuse and alcoholism. For a long period, the Olympian hero was homeless and unknown, dosing on LSD.

Then somehow Ervin conquered his demons and turned his life around. After years of not being anywhere near a pool, he began training again. This week saw his return to the Olympics and winning his second gold medal. He had auctioned off his first medal in 2004, reportedly to help the victims of that year’s Tsunami disaster in Asia.

To quote Russia’s Efimova again: “Everyone deserves a second chance.” Amen to that.

Surely, the noble art of sports is about defeats and victories, great human struggles, perseverance and faith. And in those endeavors we see and share our common humanity.

What is painfully regrettable about the present games is the way common humanity has been carved up to fulfill a geopolitical agenda set out by Washington to demonize and vilify Russia. This agenda is nothing short of a drumbeat for war. It is reprehensible and criminal.

Equally regrettable is that some great sportsmen and women are in lockstep with this jingoistic drumbeat for war.

The way that Team USA tried to tear Yulia Efimova apart in public is odious testimony that warmongering has contaminated the Olympics – 25 years after the Cold War was supposed to have ended.

Would Lilly King, Michael Phelps and others have ganged up on Efimova in this appalling manner if normal, friendly US-Russian relations pertained? Why didn’t Team USA take a consistent righteous stand by railing against athletes from other countries implicated in doping?

The pinnacle of sporting prowess is not a metallic object. It is something far more enduring in the human spirit. Team USA – the swimmers at any rate – may have won a clatter of gongs, but in terms of dignity and humanity, they are showing themselves to be uncouth losers.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.