Rio 2016 Olympics: Yulia Efimova and the 'fog of suspicion'
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|Hosts: Rio de Janeiro Dates: 5-21 August Rio time: BST -4|
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The Olympics likes to be known as the greatest show on earth. Maybe, after 130 years, it still is. But it is also in danger of being watched in a way that threatens both its present and troubled future.
Sport has been dogged by drugs scandal ever since it decided it should start testing. Entire generations of young men and women were doped behind the Iron Curtain. Western scientists gave select superstars in Europe and the US insurmountable illegal advantages. A man seen as the saviour of cycling turned out to be its worst nightmare.
The Olympics always pulled through, buttressed by the public caution of clean athletes and the belief of those watching that every cycle saw a little more cleansing done.
Until now. Never have so many been banned as in 2016. Never has there been more cynicism about some of those left, or such open warfare between accusatory rivals. Everywhere, it seems, is doubt: can we trust what we just saw?
The McLaren report's revelations that Russia operated a state-sponsored doping programme for four years across the "vast majority" of summer and winter Olympic sports did not stop the International Olympic Committee admitting 271 of that nation's athletes from an original entry list of 389, even though the World Anti-Doping Agency it helps fund had called for a total ban.
But it is not just Russia. More than 100 athletes from other nations competing here have previously served doping bans.
And it is not just those already brought to justice. Last month, further retests of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics brought the number of athletes to retrospectively test positive from those Games to 98.
There have been times when you wondered if the average spectator in an Olympic grandstand cared or even knew about the dark stain on some competitors. The Games can be such a collective source of joy that all are carried along by the golden glow.
Three days in to these Rio Games, it feels different. For the first time, some formerly banned athletes have been booed as they come out to compete. World records have triggered tsunamis of cynicism on social media. War is breaking out in the changing-rooms and call-rooms. Blood in the pool at the Aquatic Centre, anger and accusation in the sticky Rio air.
On Monday night in Rio, Russia's Yulia Efimova - initially banned from these Olympics by Fina, swimming's global governing body, reinstated the day after the opening ceremony by the IOC - walked out for her 100m breaststroke final to the type of prolonged and heartfelt jeering never heard before at an Olympics.
Efimova was banned for 16 months in 2013 after testing positive for anabolic steroids. In two months earlier this year she tested positive for meldonium four times, before being cleared again by Fina.
For many in the crowd, that was too much. For some of her rivals, it was impossible to stay silent.
"Cheaters are cheaters," said Irish swimmer Fiona Doyle, who missed out on the semi-finals by one place as Efimova went through.
"Who are you supposed to trust now? They have signs all over the village saying we are a clean sport, and it's not."
Two nights before it had been young Australian Mack Horton, calling out reigning Olympic champion Sun Yang (three-month ban for banned stimulant trimetazidine in 2014) after beating him to 400m freestyle gold.
"I used the words 'drug cheat' because he tested positive," said Horton. "I just have a problem with athletes who have tested positive and are still competing."
Maybe it's unfair on Efimova, who insists she is now clean and will be tested repeatedly again this week. Spanish cyclist Alejandro Valverde, banned for two years in 2010 for blood doping, lined up in Saturday's road race without receiving the same treatment.
Lilly King, the 19-year-old American who beat Efimova to gold on Monday, mocked her finger-wagging celebrations after the semi-finals. Asked whether athlete and US team-mate Justin Gatlin, who has served two doping bans, should be taking part in the Games, King replied: "Do I think people who have been caught for doping offences should be on the team? No, they shouldn't."
Maybe you can't blame the clean athletes for fighting back. The overwhelming majority of athletes at this Games are clean, here through the same combination of talent, training and dedication that has always carried champions on.
And yet so regular have been the scandals, so familiar the litany of cheats given second chances, that every great performance is now subject to instant dispute on social media.
In that fog of suspicion, inelegant nationalism and unfettered rumour, innocence is lost.
Hungary's Katinka Hosszu smashes the world record by two seconds to take 400m individual medley gold. Most celebrate her triumph, others wonder how she has improved so much, aged 27, having failed to win a medal four years ago in London.
Adam Peaty destroys the rest of the field in the 100m breaststroke by 1.56 seconds. Britain celebrates; tweets circle from other nations questioning how one young man can be so clear of so many other greats.
That selective mistrust was already there in London four years ago. Lithuania's Ruta Meilutyte won 100m breaststroke gold aged 15 and was eulogised; China's 16-year-old Ye Shiwen broke the 400 individual medley world record to a very different reaction.
Now it is swamping national borders.
And when the trust goes, the great elation of watching elite sport can leach away too.
How much of yourself to give emotionally to a golden moment when there is the nagging fear that it will be scratched from the books a few years down the line? From one athletics race alone at London 2012, the women's 1500m, six athletes have now been sanctioned for doping offences.
How much wonder to invest in a superhuman performance when it might just be too good to be true? Of the top five fastest men in 100m sprinting history, four have been banned for drugs.
Never has the need for reassurance been greater. But while the IOC has talked a good game - president Thomas Bach promised to enforce the "toughest sanctions available" after the McLaren report, its subsequent decision to hand each individual sporting federation the power to decide if Russian competitors should compete has neither bolstered former cheats like Efimova nor protected the reputations of those Russians who might be clean.
"I think it's sad that we have people who are testing positive not once but twice, and still having the opportunity to swim at these Games," says the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps.
"It breaks my heart, and I wish somebody would do something about it."
Perhaps the storm will die away. There will be so much wonderful sport over the remaining 12 days that many will rightly be caught up in the purity of most of it once again.
You hope that all those watching, whether in the bright new arenas here or late night and bleary-eyed around the world, can rejoice in all they see. You hope.
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