Booing the Russians: No love lost at the Olympic pool

When Russian swimmers took to the Olympic pool in Rio Sunday night, a vocal crowd watching the action reacted with booing, and not the "under-your-breath" variety, the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault writes.

Vocal crowd reacts even before athletes dip their toes in the water at Rio

Yulia Efimova of Russia celebrates winning a semifinal of the women's 100-metre breaststroke at the Summer Olympics in Rio on Aug. 7, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

If there is already booing in the heats, what will the crowds do if a Russian wins an Olympic gold medal at swimming?

And that was booing last night. No mistaking it. And not booing of the under-your-breath, tsk-tsk variety. It was scorn at volume as the Russian men's 4x100-metre freestyle relay swimmers were announced poolside in Rio.

They hadn't even dipped their toes in the water yet.

Listening in was retired Canadian Olympian and multiple swimming medallist Mark Tewksbury.

The booing began, he said, in the athletes' section and was "joined ... because the athletes started it, by the Brazilian crowd, which was vocal."

Tewksbury had a prime spot to soak it in. But from the stands it was pretty clear, too.

Have a listen:

Crowd boos Russian athletes

5 years ago
Boos erupted during the Olympic swim relay competition 0:17

It's been feisty at the pool. There was a round of booing when Russian Yulia Efimova slipped into the water for a 100-metre breaststroke heat.

She is a magnet for the frustration. Efimova was only cleared to compete 24 hours earlier after initially being told to stay away by her swimming federation because of an earlier doping infraction.

As as she touched the pool deck at the end of her swim, she waved a finger in the air, the "I'm No. 1" move.

Watching the replay, a still-soaking American swimmer, Lilly King, wagged a finger at the screen and at Efimova, telling NBC: "If that's what she feels she needs to be able to compete, whatever, I'm here to compete clean for the U.S."

For good measure, King one-upped Efimova in Monday night's final. The 19-year-old from Evansville, Ind., swam an Olympic record time for gold.

Efimova — booed when introduced for the final — took silver.

The sniffing at the Russians really kicked off when Mack Horton of Australia called upon his fellow athletes to "name and shame" the drug cheats in their midst.

Italy's Gabriele Detti, Mack Horton of Australia and China's Sun Yang won Olympic medals in the men's 400-metre freestyle event held Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. (Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

He was referring to a Chinese swimmer in particular. This has outraged China, where Sun Yang — who was suspended for three months in 2014 over banned heart medication — is a megastar.

But Tewksbury sees it differently and as a turning point.

"This is unheard of to have such an open conversation and call to action." 

He says he suspects it is happening because of "the leadership at the IOC level and the lack of action. The athletes having to take action is, for me, a great thing."

Asked about the building booing today, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said: "It's difficult to understand why they might be booing."

That's a curious response. The IOC may need to answer the question again because uncomfortable nights might be ahead for a lot of people.

There are Russians poised to win medals, some of them potentially gold and potentially tonight. What happens when or if the Russian anthem is played?


Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.