Ryan Murphy creates a doping firestorm in swimming with claims that Olympic races are ‘probably not clean’

TOKYO — Ryan Murphy won a silver medal at the Olympics here on Friday, then spent the aftermath creating an international stir around doping by claiming that his races, and swimming in general, were not clean.

“I do believe there is doping in swimming,” Murphy, a 26-year-old American, said. And he said an executive at FINA, the international swimming governing body, had told him as much.

Murphy sat a few feet away from Evgeny Rylov, the Russian who beat him earlier in the week and again on Friday in the 200m backstroke. Shortly after the race, Murphy had been asked whether he had any concerns about his opponents doping.

“I’ve got about 15 thoughts,” he said. “Thirteen of them would get me into a lot of trouble.”

The ones he eventually gave sent him, hours later, walking down a sidewalk outside the Tokyo Aquatics Center, a few reporters trailing him, one telling him that he’d “completely ruined Evgeny’s moment.” He said that wasn’t his intention. “Congratulations, Evgeny,” he said. His voice wavered as he spoke. “I want Evgeny to get his due.”

But Murphy had said what he’d said, and although he’d said it through a blur of post-race emotions, he believed it. “It is a huge mental drain on me to know throughout the year that I’m swimming in a race that’s probably not clean,” Murphy explained in the initial interview. “And that is what it is. The people that know a lot more about the situation made the decision they did. 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 decision that they’re making the wrong decisions.”

Ryan Murphy and Evgeny Rylov attend an awkward news conference together after the men's 200m backstroke. (Yahoo Sports)
Ryan Murphy and Evgeny Rylov attend an awkward news conference together after the men's 200m backstroke. (Yahoo Sports)

Murphy never explicitly accused Rylov of cheating, but never explicitly said he thought Rylov was clean, either. Rylov, when asked about Murphy’s comments, said, “I have always been for clean competition,” but declined to address Murphy’s claims.

And Murphy never explicitly mentioned Russia, which is supposedly “banned” from these Games for a years-long state-sponsored doping scheme, but which has sent hundreds of athletes in white-blue-and-red tracksuits and uniforms to Tokyo under the “Russian Olympic Committee” label. When asked whether he believed the Russian Olympic Committee should be competing at these Olympics, Murphy said he didn’t “have time to get involved in this situation. But there is a situation. And that’s a problem. I’m sorry that there is a situation, but I don’t – I don’t know enough about it to give a 100% certain answer there.”

Speaking at a news conference before Murphy and Rylov arrived, Great Britain’s Luke Greenbank, the bronze medalist in the event, also didn’t mention Russia, but connected the dots: “Obviously it's frustrating, as an athlete, having known that there is a state-sponsored doping program going on.”

Rylov then arrived, and moments later Murphy did, and Rylov gave him a head nod, apparently unaware of what Murphy had said earlier, and thus began the most tense and awkward news conference of these Olympics.

Murphy was asked, specifically, whether he thought the 200-meter backstroke final that he’d just swum was clean.

“The thing that's frustrating is that you can't answer that question with 100% certainty,” he said. “And I think over the years, that's kinda come out. And so yeah, I can't answer that question, I don't know if it was 100% clean. And that's because of things that have happened over the past.”

Rylov was immediately asked: “Do you think they’re referring to you?”

“I have always been for clean competition,” Rylov said in Russian. “I’m always tested. I’ll fill out all the forms. So from the bottom of my heart, I’m for clean sport. … So I don’t know how to react to that. Ryan didn’t accuse me of anything, therefore I’d rather not react.”

Murphy then faced pressure to back up his allegations, and revealed that at U.S. Olympic trials last month, he’d had a conversation with new FINA executive director Brent Nowicki. Murphy said that Nowicki, a fellow American, told him: “It’s gonna be hard, and it’s gonna take a long time to clear this sport of doping.”

“So when you hear that from the top, that’s tough to hear,” Murphy said. “And so, that is — yeah, that’s what I believe.”

(When asked whether it believes that there is doping in swimming, FINA said in a statement that "doping is a worldwide problem in sport," and that its president, Husain Al-Musallam, "since taking office two months ago, has made the prevention of doping in aquatics a priority in his reforms.")

Murphy was stoic and measured throughout the news conference. A foreign reporter asked him about Justin Gatlin, the American sprinter found guilty of doping. Murphy defended the U.S. anti-doping system, and said it wasn’t “apples to apples.” After a moderator thanked the three swimmers for their time, and as Rylov posed for selfies with a few Russian reporters, Murphy got up to leave, but almost looked, for a split-second, as if he had more to say.

Twenty seconds later, outside the venue, when asked if he did, he stopped, and that’s when the gravity of the sudden firestorm he’d created began to hit him. “I'm not accusing anyone of anything,” he clarified. He tried to reframe his original answer in a milder way. As he walked away, a reporter chased him and told him that his comments had “taken all the focus away from all of your victories,” and that “it’s just completely dominated everything now, and will dominate probably for the rest of the event.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Murphy said.

And then he kept walking.

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