Yulia Efimova had just won a silver medal at the Rio Olympics. This should have been one of the happiest moments of the 24-year-old swimmer’s life. Yet here she was sobbing into the arms of her coach, visibly upset by what was going on around her. Far from celebrating her achievements, the crowd had booed loudly every time she entered the aquatics arena.
In March, Efimova had tested positive for the banned substance meldonium – the same drug tennis star Maria Sharapova was caught using earlier this year. Her main rival, the American Lilly King (who won the gold) was incensed that she’d been allowed to swim at all. She had gone out of her way to publicly condemn the Russian swimmer at every stage of the competition. In their post-race press conference, as Efimova struggled to hold back her tears, King hammered home the point again: “I’m just happy […] to know I am competing clean and doing what is right.”
In actual fact Efimova’s case was slightly more complicated than either King or the booing crowds gave her credit for. The swimmer, who lives in the US, wasn’t a part of the state-sponsored doping program which led to over a hundred of her compatriots (including all bar one of the Russian track & field team) being banned from the Olympics. The meldonium she’d tested positive for, it was reckoned, might have been taken perfectly legally. The substance was only banned in January and the traces they found in March may have predated the ban.