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Whether Positive Or Negative, ‘Sports Diplomacy’ Shines During Rio Olympics

Russia's Yulia Efimova, left, looks on as United States' Lilly King celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women's 200-meter breaststroke final during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Michael Sohn
Russia's Yulia Efimova, left, looks on as United States' Lilly King celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women's 200-meter breaststroke final during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Beyond the athletic competition, feats of strength, and patriotic triumph, the Olympics serve as a moment where countries can come together and put their differences aside. But politics has played out during the first week of competition.

Russia’s athletes haven’t received the warmest welcome in Rio de Janeiro after widespread allegations of state-sponsored doping that nearly saw the entire team banned from the 2016 Summer Games. The tensions has been noticeable in the Aquatics Stadium, especially after swimmer Lilly King wagged her finger immediately after winning the gold medal over second-place finisher Yulia Efimova in the 100-meter breaststroke final.

“This has turned into what that Russian competitor is calling ‘the new Cold War,’" University of Oklahoma College of International Studies assistant dean and comparative politics expert Rebecca Cruise told KGOU’s World Views.

Efimova has been booed every time she’s raced in Rio, The New York Times reports:

After posting the fastest time in qualifying on Sunday afternoon, King wagged her finger to remind everyone who was No. 1. As King looked on from the ready room, where swimmers gather before they race, Efimova won the first semifinal and mimicked King’s move. King went out and won the second semifinal and shook her finger again. In a postrace interview with NBC, King said, “You wave your finger No. 1, and you’ve been caught drug cheating?” She added, “I’m not a fan.” In a group interview in the mixed zone, King defended her actions. “I’m not this sweet little girl,” she said. “That’s not who I am.”

Efimova served a 16-month suspension doping that ended in 2015, and earlier this year she failed a drug test (the drug had been recently banned, and the ruling was overturned on appeal). Cruise says the allegations of state-sponsored doping date back decades, especially in former Soviet bloc countries.

"We saw this with the East Germans in the 1970s, these are governments that are largely responsible for this,” Cruise said. “The athletes are not blameless, but the governments often will go ahead and do this often to the detriment of the athletes.”

Selfie a sign of softening relations?

During an artistic gymnastics practice session the night before the opening ceremonies, South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-Ju and North Korea’s Hong Un-Jong paused to take a selfie, which has since gone viral.

Very little is known about Hong, and it’s not clear what (if any) repercussions she might face when she returns to her authoritarian home country. Hong was photographed hugging all-around and team gold medalist Simone Biles in 2014, and Cruise says the isolated country has a history of softening its image on the world stage.

“North Koreans have been participating in the Olympics since the 1970s, only excluding a couple in the mid-80s that they boycotted. One in the United States and one in Seoul,” Cruise said. “Oddly enough, you've never seen a defection from a North Korean athlete at the Olympics. You see them from other countries that are under these sorts of regimes.”

World Views is a collaboration between KGOU and the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies to bring internationally-focused reporting and interviews to listeners in Oklahoma and beyond. Help support these efforts with a donation online.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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