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FINA Needs to Win Back the Faith of Swimmers

U.S. gold-medal breaststroker Lilly King (foreground) and Russian silver medalist Yulia Efimova (Getty Images)
U.S. gold-medal breaststroker Lilly King (foreground) and Russian silver medalist Yulia Efimova (Getty Images)

With a wagging finger, American swimmer Lilly King christened herself the leader of the Olympics’ antidoping contingency Monday night. She, and not Yulia Efimova, a 24-year-old Russian who has been caught taking banned substances in the past, was no. 1, winning the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke with an Olympic-record time of 1:04.93.

King, 19, became the loudest voice in a chorus of Olympic complaints about drug cheats, a subject that has been especially pointed in swimming: Efimova and China’s Sun Yang, both of whom have previously been suspended for doping, have been booed throughout their respective events. King’s implication was that Efimova, who has twice tested positive for banned substances and served a 16-month suspension from late 2013 through early 2015, ought not to have been allowed to compete — that even after international swimming’s regulatory body, FINA, lifted her provisional suspension in May, she is still dirty. The argument isn’t necessarily that Efimova is currently doping; it’s that she is a doper, and as such should not be permitted to participate in swimming’s most high-stakes contests.

Whether King believes that any use of banned substances should result in a lifetime ban — an extreme measure by any sport’s standards — will be discussed at length in the coming days. But it masks a larger problem: The world’s top swimmers no longer have faith in FINA to police doping. Michael Phelps recently called the state of the sport’s doping protections “upsetting.” “I think I can honestly say in my career I don’t know if I’ve ever competed in a clean sport,” he said.

His coach, United States men’s team head Bob Bowman, agreed. “It’s very concerning to me that our governing bodies have dropped the ball in many ways on this. The system is broke and it has to be fixed.”

The past year has seen a steady stream of revelations about the failures of various antidoping bodies, many implicating Russian athletes and coaches. The problems are especially bad with FINA, whose leaders have gone out of their way to smooth over suspicions. FINA president Julio C. Maglione met with the Russian minister of sport in July in a show of support; the organization later issued a statement saying FINA was “concerned by the premature calls” to ban Russia from the Rio games. On July 24 — less than two weeks before the opening ceremony — the International Olympic Committee declined to ban the entire Russian delegation, leaving it instead to individual sports federations to determine their own courses of action. After all this, how could athletes not be wary of their competitors?

So what is to be done? There will always be those who attempt to gain an unfair advantage in sports, particularly in a sport like swimming, where milliseconds make all the difference. It is incumbent upon FINA to do everything in its power to win back swimmers’ confidence. After her victory, King said it was “a good question” if FINA was looking out for athletes. It’s high time for the organization to try to answer that in the affirmative.