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Russian Doping Scandal Clouds the Pool in Tokyo

U.S. swimmer Ryan Murphy couldn't help but acknowledge the specter of Russia's doping scandal after being beaten in both backstroke events by Russian rivals.

TOKYO — Ryan Murphy didn’t really want to go there. Tried to stop short. Then went at least halfway there anyway.

After being beaten in both backstrokes by Russian rivals, the American was asked moments after taking silver in the 200-meter race in the mixed zone about any concerns he had about competitors doping. The implication seemed pretty clear, given Russia’s sketchy pseudo-presence in these Olympic Games, and that nation’s direct impact on Murphy as the reigning champion in both the 100 and 200.

“When I’m asked a question like that, I’ve got about like 15 thoughts—and 13 of them would get me into a lot of trouble,” Murphy said. “It is what it is. I try not to get caught up in that. It is a huge mental drain on me to go throughout the year knowing that I’m in a race that probably isn’t clean.

“The people that know a lot more about the situation made the decision they did. It frustrates me. But I don’t have the bandwidth to train for the Olympics at a really high level and also people that are making decisions about those situations.”

Russia was given a toothless ban by the International Olympic Committee for systemic doping across multiple sports. Ultimately, the only penalty was that its athletes in Tokyo are recognized as “Russian Olympic Committee” competitors, as opposed to representing the nation. The flag raised at medal ceremonies—including the ones involving Murphy—show the Olympic rings and a flame. But the Russians are still here and winning medals, which hasn’t gone over well with everyone.

Ryan Murphy (USA), from left, Evgeny Rylov (ROC) and Luke Greenbank (GBR) pose with their medals after taking the top spots in the men's 200 backstroke final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games

About an hour after Murphy’s initial comments, he got some backing from Great Britain’s Luke Greenbank, who won the bronze in the 200 to Murphy’s silver and Evgeny Rylov’s gold. “It’s obviously a very difficult situation not knowing whether the race is clean,” Greenbank said. “…It’s a strange situation but I’ve got to keep my mind on my own situation and focus on what I can control.”

Thus began an instant international media incident, with Russian and British reporters going at Murphy with bellicose questions without the benefit of having heard his initial comments. Murphy stood his ground, explaining that he was not directly implicating Rylov, who won both the 100 and 200 back while fellow Russian Klement Kolesnikov won silver in the shorter race.

“To be clear, my intention is not to make any allegations here,” Murphy said. “Congratulations to Evgeny, congratulations to Luke. They’re both great swimmers who work very hard.

“I do believe there’s doping in swimming. That is what it is. I met the FINA executive director, Mr. [Brent] Nowicki, at Olympic Trials, and he was asking me for my take. I was like, ‘OK, FINA needs to be a little more transparent both on the financial side and the drug side.’

“He said, ‘I think it’s’ going to take a long time to clear this sport of doping.’ When you hear that from the top, that’s tough to hear. Yeah, that’s what I believe.”

Seated next to Murphy, Rylov was asked about Murphy’s comments and responded blandly, while acknowledging Russia’s prior doping scandal.

“Ryan has all the right to think the way he does and say what he wants to say,” Rylov said through an interpreter. “I don’t want to live in the past, I want to live in the future, and time will tell.”

As long as the Russians are competing here, dissatisfaction will exist. Murphy was just the first one to say the quiet part out loud, though his comments were aimed at the FINA and IOC leadership more than any athlete or country.

“I think the thing that’s frustrating is that you can’t answer that question with 100 percent certainty,” he said. “Over the years, I can’t answer that question. I don’t know if it was 100 percent clean, and that’s because of things that have happened over the past.

“I said there’s people that know a lot more about this situation than I do. I am training to be the absolute best athlete I can be, so I don’t have the time to get involved in the situation. But there is a situation.”

American teammate Lilly King, who has never been shy about expressing opinions on doping, was asked about Murphy’s comments. She stuck to what she believed about her event, which was the 200-meter breastroke.

“I feel really confident in the fact that my heat was clean today, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that,” she said.

Worth noting: Russian Yulia Efimova, who had previous positive drug tests and became the focal point of King’s anti-doping rhetoric in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, did not make the 200 breast final.

Murphy was trailed out of his press conference by several reporters, including one from England who asserted that Murphy “completely ruined” Rylov’s moment of triumph.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Murphy said over his shoulder as he kept walking. 

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