Abrahamson: Ryan Murphy and the crux of an international incident

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 30: (L-R) Silver medalist Ryan Murphy of Team United States, gold medalist Evgeny Rylov of Team ROC and bronze medalist Luke Greenbank of Team Great Britain pose on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men's 200m Backstroke Final on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 30, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

TOKYO — Ryan Murphy clearly believes there’s more he can say than what he said Friday after taking second in the men’s 200 backstroke, behind Evgeny Rylov of Russia — er, the Russian Olympic Committee.

Therein lies the crux of an international incident that absolutely did not have to be but exploded nonetheless, a controversy that erupted Friday after the race and clouded affairs as the swim meet at the Tokyo 2020 Games winds toward its conclusion.

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Murphy alleged kinda-sorta something, noting Russia’s state-linked doping past, but came with no specifics about anyone or anything. Because he finished second, it naturally sounded to some if not many — this is unavoidable — like a case of sour grapes. Which it almost certainly was not because Ryan Murphy is a standup guy. All the same, his words prompted a furious, no-holds-barred response from the ROC. 

Ryan Murphy of Team United States reacts after competing in the Men's 200m Backstroke

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 30: Ryan Murphy of Team United States reacts after competing in the Men's 200m Backstroke Final on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 30, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The ideal in the Olympic movement is advancing world peace through sport. Reality: a case study, often daily, in crisis management.

To deconstruct Friday's at the pool:

Murphy is the 100 and 200 backstroke winner from the Rio 2016 Games. He is also one of the U.S. swim team captains.

Earlier this week, Murphy finished third in the 100 back, behind Rylov and another ROC swimmer, Kliment Kolesnikov. If Murphy had won the 200 Friday, he would have continued an American winning streak in the event dating to 1996. 


SEE MORE: Russian Evgeniy Rylov spoils Ryan Murphy's 100 back repeat

Rylov won, in an Olympic-record 1:53.27. Murphy finished 88-hundredths back, in 1:54.15. Britain’s Luke Greenbank touched third, in 1:54.72.

Rylov became the first athlete from — take your pick of the descriptor — the ROC, Russia, Soviet Union to achieve the 100/200 back double in Olympic history.

Russia is formally banned at the 2020 Games because of the scheme tied to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The Russian athletes are competing as the ROC, with a team of some 330.

Evgeny Rylovcompetes in the Men's 200m Backstroke Final

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 30: Evgeny Rylov of Team ROC competes in the Men's 200m Backstroke Final on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 30, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

After an event at an Olympics, Winter or Summer, athletes must walk through what’s called a “mixed zone.” There they “mix” — meet — with the press. 

In the mixed zone, Murphy told reporters, “I’ve got about 15 thoughts. Thirteen of them would get me into a lot of trouble.” He added, “It’s a huge mental drain on me to go throughout the year that I’m swimming in a race that’s probably not clean.”

The ROC Twitter account pounced. In Russian, the tweet said, in significant part:

View social media post: https://twitter.com/Olympic_Russia/status/1420973105388916738?s=20

“Yes, we are here at the Olympics. Absolutely right. Whether someone likes it or not. But you have to be able to lose. But not everyone is given this. The old barrel organ started the song about Russian doping again …

“English-language propaganda, oozing verbal sweat in the Tokyo heat … forgive those who are weaker. God is their judge.”

SEE MORE: Swimming Day 7 roundup: First swimming world record falls

In a news conference a few minutes after his comments in the mixed zone, Russian and British reporters asked Murphy repeatedly about his comments. Such is the at-the-surface animosity that a Russian reporter, and not politely, tried to draw Murphy into a comparison with twice-suspended U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin.

Gatlin is not on the U.S. track team at these Games. He did not qualify at the U.S. track trials.

“To be clear,” Murphy said, “my intention is not to make any allegations here,” except that, of course, he had, obliquely, and would go on to do so again, in just a moment. “Congratulations to Evgeny, congratulations to Luke. They’re both great swimmers who work very hard.”

Rylov, speaking through a translator, 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.”

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

But what exactly is the situation? The Russians who are here have been tested thoroughly. If the tests aren’t up to speed, then the entire system is flawed. And not just for the Russians. For everyone. If there’s a test result that’s being hidden, that’s another issue altogether. But neither Murphy nor anyone else has brought forth any such evidence.

Are the Russian swimmers of 2021 to be sanctioned for the actions of, say, the cross-country ski team from 2014, particularly when Grigory Rodchenkov, the acknowledged mastermind of the scheme, is enjoying the benefits of the witness protection program in the United States?

Murphy said that at the U.S. swim Trials in June in Omaha, he had met with Brent Nowicki, the new executive director of swimming’s international federation, FINA. Asked what it could do, Murphy said the sport needed more transparency around its finances and doping policies. Murphy then said Nowicki told him, “We are working on it but it’s going to be hard and it’s going to take a long time to clear this sport of doping.”

Murphy said at the news conference, “When you hear that from the top, that’s tough to hear.”

But there’s still more one more layer to this story.

Just two months ago, FINA elected a new president, Husain Al-Musallam, who has pledged widespread culture change. He and Nowicki are just weeks into the job. 

Later Friday, Nowicki issued a statement noting that election and saying, “Doping is a worldwide problem in sport … as FINA has made clear to all our athletes, we are committed to doing more and further strengthening our anti-doping practices with more resources and greater transparency.”

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