First: Hello GT! I’ve been gone awhile, my MacBook keyboard is broke and so am I, so I can’t fix it atm. I’ve been using Mr. Toad’s Surface, and while I really like it actually, I couldn’t find my login, and hate typing on my iPad, so I’ve been mostly lurking. But I found my burner key, and now I’m back!
I have a lot of Thoughts about Lilly King and Yulia Effimova, and what went down between them. This will be quite long, but I want to clear up some misconceptions and put the facts out there along with my feelings. For some context, I have been involved in swimming for over 16 years, as a coach and an athlete and a very involved spectator. I’m familiar with the world of high-level competitive swimming (not because I was any good, but my little brother was, and as you may have noticed, swimming is a family sport). So I like to think I know what I’m talking about.
And I am APPALLED by Lilly King’s behavior. I’m sorry. It’s just unacceptable to me. In all my years in the sport, I have RARELY IF EVER seen someone behave that way. And if they did, it was immediately made clear that that was unacceptable. Splashing water in Yulia’s face and refusing to shake her hand? Could get you kicked off the deck at any other meet. I have seen it.
But let’s back up to the beginning, where it all started, in the ready room. First of all, putting your finger up is just a thing people do in swimming. Yulia wasn’t making a huge statement that she’s unbeatable. She was just excited she won the heat. But okay, it bugged Lilly and she mocked it. Fine. Then when she won her heat and beat Yulia’s time, she mocked it again. Again, fine. Shady, but whatever, I appreciate some good shade. But then she opened her mouth. She called Yulia out for her “drug cheating” and said she wasn’t a fan. She made a very innocuous move - the finger waving after winning a heat - into a personal and provocative action, which is not true and not fair. And while the phrase “drug cheating” is fucking hilarious, and I will use it forever, I’m really not cool with that. Because really quick, let’s talk about Yulia’s history of “drug cheating.”
The original suspension she received was allegedly due to tainted supplements. She went to GNC, picked up a bottle of supplements, didn’t have good English (she actually lives in LA) and didn’t check the ingredients. It turned out to have a banned substance, which she tested positive for and was suspended for. Originally her suspension was for two years, but because this is such a common mistake that athletes make, it was reduced to six months. She wasn’t knowingly taking performance enhancing drugs, but she should have known to be more careful. The second suspension, the most recent and controversial one, is regarding the heart medication melodinum, which is quite common in Eastern Europe and was banned in early 2016. Her doctor had prescribed it to her, because of the common belief in that region that hard training is bad for the heart. Now, if this sounds like an excuse for state sponsored doping, that’s because it is. But that’s a crime/violation of the state and doctors. Yulia was doing what her doctor told her to do. And she stopped taking it when it was banned, but the IOC, before banning, did NO RESEARCH on how long it takes the drug to leave the system. Yulia claims this is why the drug was present in her tests, and there’s no evidence otherwise. That’s why she’s here. That’s why she’s swimming.
So no, at no point was Yulia accused of “drug cheating” in the sense that she was knowingly and purposefully taking performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, maybe she really is the Cold War villain she’s been made out to be, but I’m not in the habit of disbelieving women when there’s no proof otherwise. I do believe that in Russia, there is a purposefully created culture that pushes athletes to take supplements and medications that may have a performance-enhancing effect. But that’s a systemic problem, not an individual one. But now this poor young woman has been made the face of the Russian doping scandal. As a result, she was booed as she walked in to swim her race against Lilly. I have NEVER heard of an athlete being booed in swimming. EVER. It simply does not happen. No wonder Yulia broke down before and after her race.
Let’s talk a little about what Lilly said after that original moment. I don’t want to vilify her unduly either, and I know that sometimes, you get pumped up, and you say stuff you don’t mean. But after having time to think about it, her statement just made it worse for me. She said she’s not “some sweet little girl” and that she speaks her mind, but also “if she needed to stir some stuff up to light a fire under her butt or anyone else’s” that’s what she was going to do. I want to unpack that a little.
First, I am all about pushing back against the expectation that women be sweet and nice. But I am NOT about using that as an excuse to be mean and to be hurtful to other women. Plus, Lilly, if you want to make this about gender, let’s think about some of the other gendered implications here. First, holding a woman personally responsible for the system that dictates her choices is, indeed, sexist. Second, Chad le Clos, whose shadow boxing and stare downs were a focal point before the 200 fly, and equally out of place in swimming as well as actually provocative was not booed. Sun Yang of China, who is accused of doping on similarly shaky charges as Yulia, but is also actually a KNOWN TERRIBLE SPORT, didn’t get booed.
But no one is talking about the second part of her statement: “if I need to stir some stuff up to light a fire under my butt...” This was a tactic. This was designed to psych Yulia out, to throw her off her game. It’s not that Lilly King is taking some kind of brave stand for all good and righteous swimmers. It’s that she’s playing head games with her opponents. And if she wanted to take a stand against doping, what she said after the race “Americans can still compete and win clean” is perfect. Shady, true, and most importantly, not personally aimed at a young woman whose offenses are dubious.
I don’t mean to imply that doping isn’t a serious issue - it absolutely is. And in some cases, it’s an individual choice to break the rules. But it’s also a systemic issue, an issue of government-sponsored drug use, and an issue of poor regulation and testing protocols by FINA. I also don’t mean to now hold Lilly King accountable for the actions of the crowd or the way the American public latched onto this story (or the way it was presented by those fucks NBC). But I do want to point out what’s wrong with what she did, and I do hold her to the standard I hold all other US swimmers and athletes - we are good sports. We rise above. We shake hands. We don’t personalize. It’s about the sport and the competition. And you’ll see that if you look at any other swimmer on the US team.