By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
When swimmer Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova entered the Olympic swimming pool in Rio ahead of the 100m breaststroke finals the crowd booed loudly. Efimova, who had previously been banned from competition twice for doping, is a controversial figure at the Rio Olympics and has been embroiled in a major drama over the race to gold in the breaststroke. It was another chapter of the ongoing drama in the breaststroke race. Efimova’s chief contender, Lilly King, had said in an interview after the semi finals, “You’re shaking your finger ‘No. 1’ and you’ve been caught for drug cheating…I’m not a fan.” The crowd in Rio was not a fan either. King went on to win the gold medal and did not hesitate to rub it in, exclaiming to the press, “It just proves that you can compete clean and still come out on top with all the work you put in.” No one likes a cheater, so at first glance it seems only natural that the crowd sided with King: the Russian doping scandal dominated the headlines before the games even began, and Efimova herself failed a substance test twice. But beyond unsportsmanlike behavior, the Russian swimmer’s response to critics made a valid point, “I always thought the cold war was long in the past. Why start it again, by using sport?”
Booing Efimova may be about sportsmanship on the surface, but it reflects a deeper cultural paradigm on both the individual and the international levels. On the individual level, as much as Westerners would like her to be, Efimova is hardly a Russian uber villain. As elaborated by Sally Jenkins in The Washington Post, Efimova trains in Los Angeles rather than Russia. Her first doping offense was due to a banned substance found in a legal supplement she bought at GNC and was deemed an honest mistake. Her suspension was accordingly reduced. The second offense was caused by a prescribed medication provided by her Russian doctors that was only banned in January 2016. The timing of the ban and the fact that she may have consumed the substance only before it became banned and is the reason she was allowed to participate in the Olympics in the first place. Despite media coverage to the contrary, Efimova is a talented swimmer, and not an evil Russian spy.
Because we are political scientists, the international aspect of the Efimova affair is even more interesting to us. We agree with Efimova (not about everything: swimming the breaststroke seven hours a day sounds almost worse than writing a dissertation): there is a definitive Cold War vibe to these Rio Olympic Games. Under the guise of clean sports, the so-called Western world is aligning behind the US and showing open hostility toward Russia and even its traditional allies. True, the scale of the Russian doping scandal is likely huge, but other countries have been implicated in similar doping scandals before and received have been much less vilified. Jamaican athletes for example, have persistently failed drug tests, and yet, while the suspicion toward Jamaican athletes is present, the hostility is decidedly absent. As the Russians rightly pointed out, doping in sport is universal, but few countries are openly booed by the international crowds and antagonized by their peers. As we argued before, the Olympics is ultimately an exercise in nationalism, and vilifying Russians is familiar territory.
In the eyes of Westerners, and particularly Americans, Russians are already villains, so any evidence of their “evil ways” underscore old narratives and seem to prove what we already know to be “true”. Although the US has made new “evil” enemies since the end of the Cold War, international terrorists do not compete under their own flag in the Olympics. Countries from which terrorist emerge are either victimized, and thus worthy of our Western pity, or are not competitive at major sports so we never even get the chance to see them. In this soft power game only the big kids can play, and so only the big traditional international animosities reemerge. But wasn’t there a time when Americans didn’t hate the Russians and everyone just got along? Of course, but it was during the 1990s when Russia was weak and non-threatening both on and off the podium.
The idea that large ideological international competitions are being played out in microcosm at the Olympic Games is underscored by the wide range of participants. Lily King and the Americans aren’t the only bullies on the playground: Australia’s Mack Horton called China’s Sun Yang a drug cheat, with France’s Camille Lacourt jumping in and accusing Yang of “pissing purple.” The reaction was swift and telling: in the wake of the accusations Chinese media and social media users called the remarks “disrespectful to China” “evil”, “gross” and “ignorant.” One user Chinese user wrote, “There is a scientific explanation for why he [Horton] swims so fast. It’s because he’s light, he has no brain.”
One of the projects we have been working on is about international state reputations: how, why and under what conditions are they are formed? Can countries do something to change them? When will these efforts succeed? The Olympic Games are great opportunity to examine the persistence of state reputations in popular media and culture because the whole point of the games is one of friendly international competition. The reaction to Efimova and Sun Yang show that despite major changes to the international system, Western attitudes towards our traditional rivals have long shadows.