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U.S. swimmer Ryan Murphy: Tokyo Olympics meet ‘probably not clean’

Silver medalist Ryan Murphy, with gold medalist Evgeny Rylov of the Russian Olympic Committee and bronze medalist Luke Greenbank of Britain after the 200-meter backstroke. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)
4 min

TOKYO — The medalists’ news conference following the men’s 200-meter backstroke final turned into an uncomfortable affair Friday afternoon at the Tokyo Olympics, as the silver and bronze winners raised pointed questions about doping that appeared to be directed toward the gold winner, who was sitting uneasily between them.

“Obviously, it’s frustrating as an athlete, having known that there’s a state-sponsored doping program going on, and feeling like maybe more could be done to tackle that,” said bronze medalist Luke Greenbank of Britain, a clear reference to the findings of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which charged Russia with systemic doping in 2019 and imposed sanctions, some of which remain in place during the Olympics.

“I think the thing that’s frustrating is that you can’t answer that question with 100 percent certainty,” said silver medalist Ryan Murphy, when asked if he thought the competition was clean. “I don’t know if it was 100 percent clean. And that’s because of things that have happened over the past. … There is a situation — and that’s a problem.”

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In the middle of the podium, gold medalist Evgeny Rylov of the Russian Olympic Committee — the name under which some 330 Russian athletes are competing here, as a condition of their participation — sat quietly, until a reporter asked whether he was competing clean.

“I have always been for clean competition,” Rylov said through an interpreter. “… From the bottom of my heart I am for clean sport. I’ve devoted my entire life to this sport. I don’t even know how to react to that.”

The question of whether the Olympic swimming competition could be considered to be clean of doping has been an undercurrent running through the meet, both because of the lapses in drug enforcement globally as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the International Olympic Committee’s controversial decision to allow Russian athletes into the Games despite the scandal and WADA sanctions.

But Murphy, one of the captains of the U.S. swim team and the gold medalist in both men’s backstroke events at Rio de Janeiro 2016, brought those concerns into the open in the mixed zone immediately following Friday’s final, in which he trailed Rylov from start to finish and touched the wall 0.88 seconds behind. It was the second time Rylov had beaten Murphy for the gold medal; in the 100 backstroke, Murphy took bronze behind Rylov and fellow Russian Kliment Kolesnikov.

“It is a huge mental drain on me throughout the year to know that I’m swimming in a race that’s probably not clean,” Murphy told reporters. “It frustrates me, but I have to swim the field that’s next to me. I don’t have the bandwidth to train for the Olympics at a very high level and try to lobby the people who are making the decisions that they’re making the wrong decisions.”

Less than an hour later, while seated next to Rylov at the news conference, Murphy seemed to soften his tone.

“To be clear, my intention is not to make any allegations here,” he said. “Congratulations to Evgeny. Congratulations to Luke. I think they did an incredible job. They’re both very talented swimmers. … I do believe there is doping in swimming.”

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Asked about Murphy’s comments, Rylov said: “Ryan has all the right to think the way he does and say whatever he says. Honestly, he did not accuse me of anything. That’s why I don’t have anything against him.”

Murphy’s comments attracted the attention of the Russian Olympic Committee, which released a fiery statement, saying in part: “Yes, we are here at the Olympics. Absolutely. Like it or not. … English-language propaganda, exhausting verbal sweat in the Tokyo heat. Through the mouths of athletes offended by defeats. We will not console you. Forgive those who are weaker. God is their judge.”

The statement, sent out through the ROC’s Twitter account, was accompanied by pictures of Murphy, Greenbank and American rower Megan Kalmoe, who earlier this week tweeted that losing to a Russian crew “who shouldn’t even be here” in women’s pairs was “a nasty feeling.”

Murphy never directly identified which fellow competitors or countries he believed to be doping, but it was no secret where his comments were directed. Only two swimmers have beaten him this week, and both are Russians.

And Russia has been the target of American ire in the past, most notably at Rio 2016, when American breaststroker Lilly King called out Russian rival Yulia Efimova, who had served a 16-month doping suspension from a positive test in 2013. After beating Efimova in the 100-meter breaststroke, and as she was seated next to Efimova in the news conference room, King called it a “victory for clean sport.”

When asked Friday whether she believes the Tokyo 2020 meet is clean, King, who took silver in the women’s 200 breaststroke, said, “I feel confident in the fact my meet was clean today, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

Russian swimmers won only four overall medals in Rio, two of them gold, but already have surpassed both totals in Tokyo — where they have five medals, two of them gold (both by Rylov) — with two more days of finals remaining.

The decision to permit Russian athletes to compete in Tokyo — albeit without the Russian flag present and under the banner of the ROC — was a controversial one. It arrived following a ruling late last year by the Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS) that partially upheld Russia’s appeal of the sanctions imposed by WADA, a decision that left WADA officials frustrated.

“It is what it is,” WADA President Witold Banka said of the CAS ruling. “In that case, we were the prosecutors and not the judge. … I can assure we will monitor the situation very closely. They will need to follow the rules.”

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