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The Russians Are Dirty

Aug 1, 2014  - Casey Barrett

How many positive tests does it take to convince you of a country’s guilt? According to the official stance from FINA, it’s not many. The letter of its law states that it’s four strikes and the country is out. If four athletes are caught cheating, then the whole damn federation faces a two-year ban. Except that’s not really true. See, they have to be FINA-sanctioned tests. If you’re caught with a positive test by your own federation, then that doesn’t count.

Which is how Russian swimmers are still allowed at international competitions, despite overwhelming evidence of doping on a widespread scale. Over the last four years, sixteen Russian swimmers have tested positive. Five tested positive last year at domestic meets in Russia, and are currently serving suspensions. This year, three more are serving drug bans for positive tests “ including world record-holder and reigning world champion in the 200 breaststroke, Yuliya Efimova. And last week, the latest positive was revealed: open water stud Vladimir Dyatchin, a multiple world champion and the Open Water Swimmer of the Year back in 2007.

This wave of dirty results has placed Russia “at the brink” of being suspended from international swimming competition. Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko recently told Russian media that “one or two more breaches” and all of Russian Swimming could face an unprecedented suspension. This would be particularly humiliating for them, as they’re set to host next year’s World Championships in Kazan.

But FINA’s Grand Poobah, Cornel Marculescu, isn’t worried. He expressed full confidence in his comrades to host Worlds, saying that “the facilities are amazing and FINA is receiving a great support from the authorities of the Russian Federation.” I’m sure Cornel would also have been impressed by the state-of-the-art facilities in Leipzig and Berlin in the former East Germany a few decades back. But that’s not really the point. The Russians are dirty, and it’s starting to look a lot like back to the future.

Craig Lord, over at Swim Vortex, has always been on top of these doping matters, and speaking of the former DDR, he’s reported on something particularly troubling with this fresh batch of Russian positive tests. It appears that we’re not always talking about the proverbial tainted supplement, or some new juice that’s one step ahead of the testers. Last summer, one of those Russian positives was a swimmer named Nikita Maksimov. Her drug of choice? The old classic: Oral Turniabol, the go-to dope of the former East Germany, in the darkest early days of international doping.

This notorious little blue pill produced astonishing results for East German women throughout the 70s and 80s. Since then, it’s led to gruesome side effects and severe health problems; some of these women went on to give birth to children with birth defects as a result of their teenaged drug regime.

Athletes get older and drift away in the stream of forgotten results, but doctors and coaches, they tend to stick around a lot longer. There’s a dark undercurrent that flows throughout international sport, swimming included. It’s a black market of performance enhancement for sale, and it knows no borders. At the moment it appears to have infiltrated Russian swimming more than other federations, but that does not mean Russia is a rogue state of isolated cheaters.

Indeed, it’s most high profile case, world record holder Yuliva Efimova, was not training inside some locked forbidden pool in Siberia. She was a member of the Trojan Swim Club, part of Dave Salo’s high profile gang of breaststroke superstars out at USC. She tested positive for DHEA, and said it came from a supplement she bought at a GNC in Los Angeles. Efimova got 16-months, leaving her enough time to get legal in time for the World Champs on her native soil. Her tried and (possibly) true defense was one of ignorance. She admitted buying the supplement, said the salesperson told her it was fine, and said she’d never even heard of DHEA. Maybe that’s what happened, but if you’re a world record holder, a defending world champ, the face of a swimming federation under increased scrutiny for its doping violations, would you take the word of a random GNC salesperson before you ingested something that could destroy your reputation?

Of course, this is the same defense that her USC breaststroking counterpart used some years back. Jessica Hardy said the same thing “ and lost a lot more for her doping offense, an Olympic berth back in 2008.

I’d like to believe that the Trojans are doing everything above board under coach Salo, however, there’s sure been some smoke around certain SC swimmers in recent years. At very least, swimmers like Hardy and Efimova appear to have been woefully naive and under prepared for the responsibilities they face as elite, heavily tested athletes. At worst, well… There’s no evidence of anything more than cluelessness out there, though that has to be a sin in another category.

Curiously, you don’t hear many swimmers speaking up about doping these days. It’s somehow become verboten. Into the grey matter of alleged doping and positive tests, a stiff upper lip of silence prevails. Swimmers are reluctant to point fingers, and fair enough; no one wants to be seen as the poor loser. But as they say about evil, all it takes is for good men to do nothing. Back in 1996, swimmers were literally pointing and laughing at Ireland’s Michelle Smith, so shameless was her cheating. In 2000, there was a loud chorus surrounding Holland’s Igne de Bruijn, and a collective eye roll surrounding the Italian team in Sydney, dismissively referred to as “Team EPO” after some credibility-defying swims. Now, neither de Bruijn nor the Italians ever failed any tests, and the only test Smith failed was for spiking her sample with lethal amounts of whiskey. 

It all seems like an obvious joke in retrospect. But in the present tense, sport is being cheated and gold is being stolen. Here’s one swimmer who’s been unafraid of speaking up: Scotland’s Michael Jamieson, the Olympic silver medalist in the 200 breast back in London. These days he’s taken to Twitter and spoken the dirty truth about the Russians and the increase in doping that is clouding our sport. It’s Jamieson who called swimming “the new track and field” and he’s vowed “not to stop shouting for the rest of my career.” 

Cheers to that. Maybe a few Americans or Canadians or Aussies will pick up that righteous chorus sometime soon.

Because it’s not only the Russians.