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TOKYO — On a contentious day at the Summer Games, we learned that the Russian Olympic Committee is employing a descendent of Fyodor Dostoevsky as a publicist, or at the very least an earnest admirer of his florid writing style. Because the statement provoked by American swimmer Ryan Murphy’s comments Friday was some Brothers Karamazov stuff.
First, the backstory before the oratory: Murphy had just won a silver medal in the 200-meter backstroke, which followed a bronze in the 100-meter backstroke earlier in the week. While those are great accomplishments, Murphy came here as the reigning Olympic champion in both events, only to be beaten by Russian rivals. Evgeny Rylov won both the 100 and 200, and fellow Russian Kliment Kolesnikov took silver in the 100.
Russia, of course, is here on double-secret probation after being wrist-slapped by the timid Court of Arbitration in Sport, which lessened sanctions from the World Anti-Doping Association for a state-sponsored doping program. The dubious conceit: athletes are not representing Russia, since they don’t have uniforms with the country’s name or a Russian flag raised at medal ceremonies. This is every bit as effective a sanction as the NCAA vacating a school’s victories.
With that as context, Murphy was asked whether he believed he was competing on a level playing field. He had thoughts. He attempted to express them with a mixture of honesty and circumspection. In the tinderbox that is all Olympic discourse about doping, that’s a hard line to walk.
“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 that they’re making the wrong decisions.”
Much media questioning and blustering and posturing ensued. And then the Russian Olympic Committee went deep into the metaphor well in releasing this beaut via its Twitter account:
“How unnerving our victories are for some of our colleagues. Yes, we are here at the Olympics. Whether someone likes it or not. The old barrel organ started the song about Russian doping again. English-language propaganda, oozing with verbal sweat in the Tokyo heat. Through the mouths of athletes offended by defeats. We will not console you. Forgive us those who are weaker. God is their judge. And for us—an assistant.”
This, from Mother Russia, is the Mother of all Olympic Committee statements. One can imagine it being written with a feather quill and an ink well, a product of bygone grandiosity. Invited to a pissing match, they emptied the bladder while spinning in circles.
The ROC doubled down by adding pictures to the tweet of three athletes who have called them on the doping carpet: Murphy, British backstroker Luke Greenbank (who finished third in the 200 backstroke and backed Murphy, albeit in couched language) and American rower Megan Kalmoe, who tweeted on July 29 that, “seeing a crew who shouldn’t even be here walk away with a silver is a nasty feeling.”
Rather aggressive, Russia. Once you get past the ornate language, though, there is a Putin-esque level of shamelessness to the message. In the space of a single statement, the ROC—and the government backing it—comes across as smug, condescending and completely unapologetic about earning a dubious pass to Tokyo.
Better, perhaps, for a nation that was cold busted for egregious cheating—to the point that the scandal included Paralympians—to suffer the inevitable slings and arrows quietly. Show some penitence upon return. Celebrate your triumphs with a hint of humility. If there is a compulsion to tweet pictures, perhaps stick to those of your own Olympic medalists. Leave out the rivals from other countries, even if they’re bad-mouthing you.
The undercurrent of anger over Russia’s presence here was bound to bubble to the surface. The country has won 33 medals in Tokyo at the time of this writing, which provides 33 reasons for international resentment to fester. The Russians created their own embarrassment, and then the IOC and CAS created a haven for them to compete with their faux “ban” on the country’s participation.
While everyone competing under the ROC banner must live with the taint of its predecessors, Rylov seems like an unfortunate crossfire victim. He beat Murphy in the 200 both the 2017 and ’19 world championships, and also finished higher than his American rival in the 100 in ’19. He’s not the type of sudden star whose ascendance from nowhere raises suspicions.
“From the bottom of my heart, I am for clean sport,” Rylov said through an interpreter Friday, seated next to Murphy. “I've devoted my entire life to this sport. I don’t even know how to react to that.”
Afterwards, he wrote in an Instagram post: "We talked with Ryan and once again made sure it a misunderstanding. We have never had any complaints against each other and remain good rivals. We both advocate the sport should be clean."
Murphy, for his part, stressed that he was not directly pointing a finger at Rylov. “To be clear, my intention is not to make any allegations here,” he said. “Congratulations to Evgeny. Congratulations to Luke.”
But, he added: "I do believe there is doping in swimming.”
There has been. There is. There will be. And the frustration of competing amid that certainty must run deep.
Articulating that frustration requires candor. It also requires a thick skin, because nothing raises the Olympic media rabble like doping controversies—even the mere mention of one in theory.
In this case, it also inspired a Russian Olympic Committee statement that was evocative—and also egocentric. Russia peacocking around in victory while mocking anyone who brings up its tawdry track record is a new level of audacity. Talk less, test negative more.
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