OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Elizabeth Beisel tilted her head, grimaced a bit and pondered the question: Does she think the Olympic swimming competition will be clean in Rio?
Finally, a blunt reply from the American.
“No,” she said.
Two days ahead of the U.S. trials in Omaha, the topic of doping was on everyone’s minds. A steady stream of revelations – most notably, allegations that the Russians have been running a state-sponsored system of cheating – raises concerns among those who insist they’re doing everything by the book.
“It’s the biggest threat to who should win the medals,” said David Marsh, who will coach the U.S. women’s team in Rio. “It’s the biggest threat to the integrity of the games.”
While much of the scorn has been directed at the Russian track and field program, which in an unprecedented penalty has been banned entirely from the Olympics, swimming has been dealing with its own doping issues.
Two-time gold medalist Sun Yang of China served a three-month ban after testing positive for a banned stimulant in 2014, a relative slap on the wrist that didn’t keep him out of any major competitions.
Then there’s Yulia Efimova, a bronze medalist at the 2012 London Games and one of Russia’s best medal hopes for Rio. She could be allowed to compete even after her second positive doping test.
World governing body FINA lifted her provisional suspension last month, saying it was merely following a recommendation from the World Anti-Doping Agency. WADA is conducting further research of the endurance-boosting drug meldonium, which was added to the list of banned substances at the start of the year. Tennis star Maria Sharapova tested positive for the same drug and received a two-year suspension.
Given all the disturbing reports, it’s not surprising that doping has been a focus of conversation around the pool deck.
“It’s really disappointing,” said world-record freestyler Katie Ledecky, who figures to be one of the biggest swimming stars in Rio. “I think we’re all happy that people are getting caught and they’re being a little tougher on things. Hopefully, that will continue and we can all feel confident going in that we’re competing against clean athletes.”
Beisel isn’t so sure.
Four years ago, she settled for a silver medal in the 400-meter individual medley behind unheralded Chinese teenager Ye Shiwen, who shattered the world record with a performance that immediately raised questions about whether she was doping. Most notably: Ye went faster than Ryan Lochte, winner of the same event for the men, over the final freestyle lap.
Ye never tested positive and denied any wrongdoing. Some complained she was the victim of a racist-tinged smear campaign led by Western media organizations.
But Ye’s struggles since the London Games – it seems unlikely she will even be on the Chinese team that competes in Rio – have done little to lessen the whispers that took the shine off her gold.
Beisel didn’t single out the swimmer who beat her four years ago, but it’s clear she worries if someone in the next lane is getting an extra boost.
“The talk, the rumors, the speculation,” she said. “Just knowing people from around the world in other countries and hearing stuff, it’s always going to be in the back of your mind.”
USA Swimming has been vocal in the anti-doping effort, but its top official knows much more needs to be done. No matter what, there will always be those willing to skirt the rules.
“It’s a monumental effort,” executive director Chuck Wielgus said Friday. “We’ll never win it, because the cheaters are always a step ahead. But I’ve seen more positive things in this go-round – and I’ve been at every Olympic Games since ’92 – than I’ve seen in the past.”
Wielgus pointed to FINA’s increased spending on testing for the top 10-ranked swimmers in each event as a major step toward ensuring a cleaner competition. He would like more money devoted toward investigating claims that don’t necessarily involve a positive test.
“One of the significant shortcomings right now is that when there is information that could lead to finding an athlete or a group of athletes or even a state-sponsored program, we want to be able to share that information and also have others be able to share that information with their domestic anti-doping agency and ultimately with WADA to conduct investigations,” he said.
According to Marsh, it doesn’t take much to dramatically affect the level of competition, especially on the female side.
“With a little bit of extra testosterone, it’s a giant advantage,” he said. “A complete game-changer.”
Hoping to make his fourth Olympic team, Lochte said he’s always been clean, and insisted he doesn’t concern himself with those who might be getting a pharmaceutical edge.
“I rely on the training I’ve done, the work I’ve done,” he said. “Whether they’re doping or not, it’s going to be a battle in order to beat me.”