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AS RUSSIA SLUMS IN DECEIT, WE SALUTE A REAL U.S. HERO: CAELEB DRESSEL
Outraged that Putin’s athletes are competing in Tokyo after a massive doping scandal, America can take pride in the five gold medals (and zero positive tests) of its newest Olympics swim king
Let the Russians rock. Let them blast their state-produced hype video, Queen’s “We Will Rock You,’’ that motivates The Red before competitions in Tokyo. Let them giggle at the outcry, the daily international rage over why their athletes are competing in the Olympics when a massive, Kremlin-sponsored doping program was supposed to ban them all.
“We will, we will, ROCK YOU!!!’’
You don’t know how lucky you are, boy, (to quote Lennon, not Lenin).
Our revenge is in knowing they must spell rock in bastardized form — “ROC’’ — as in Russian Olympic Committee, as in the deal cut by Vladimir Putin to let his so-called clean athletes participate in the Summer Games. It was a sneakily corrupt circumvention that only Czar Putin could pull off, reducing the World Anti-Doping Agency’s four-year expulsion to two years. This came with the blessing of a mysterious, absurdly named adjudicator — The Court of Arbitration for Sport, based in Switzerland — that no doubt serves the sleazier interests of the greasy-palmed International Olympic Committee. Putin agreed not to bring the Russian flag, not to put “Russia’’ on uniforms and not to play the national anthem during ceremonies. In exchange, 335 of his sportsmen and sportswomen are in Japan, where ‘‘`ROC’’ ranks third in the total medal count behind the U.S. and China.
When Russian athletes have won gold, 12 times, they’ve been saluted by Piano Concerto No. 1 from Tchaikovsky. And they’ve still worn the national colors of red, blue and white.
This is Putin’s punishment for one of the biggest drug scandals ever.
“They have all gone through the qualifications and appropriate tests like all other athletes participating here. Therefore, they have the right to be treated accordingly," said IOC president Thomas Bach, Putin’s enabler.
America is repulsed, of course, but our other vehicle of revenge is a hulking Floridian named Caeleb Dressel. He just finished dominating the swimming competition as only two U.S. males ever have — Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz — and by all reliable accounts, he’s purer than the orange groves near his rural home roots 45 miles south of Jacksonville. He didn’t require performance-enhancing drugs, apparently, to win all three individual events and two more golds in relays. His five victories place him in elite Olympics company: Phelps, Spitz, Matt Biondi and Kristin Otto. And his coronation is just what America needed in Tokyo, where the focus finally is lifted from Simone Biles and her emotional demons — she will return Tuesday on the balance beam — and other U.S. struggles, such as the women’s soccer failure.
Dressel, too, came to the Games with enormous expectations. He even used the same heavy words as Biles, saying, “I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders,’’ and at one point admitting, “This sport was a lot more fun when no one knew my name, to be honest.’’ He wanted no part of the hype and attention, realizing it was unavoidable with millions watching. But when he won his first individual final, the 100-meter freestyle, America sensed he was headed to a historic haul and followed him whether he liked it or not. Who didn’t fall in love with Dressel after his shocked reaction, followed by candid words and tears of relief?
“Right now I am just kind of hurt. It's a really tough year," he said. “It's really hard. To have the results show up — I am happy."
With the initial burden removed, Dressel ramped up his performances as a power-and-speed turbine. The comparisons to Phelps, broadcasting in the NBC booth, were inevitable. He’d just prefer not to hear them. “I’m fine if people want to compare me to him,’’ said Dressel, “but I have some goals that I would like to accomplish where I can consider myself to be great, and I don’t have to compare myself to Michael to consider myself great.’’ Ever wonder why he inevitably assumes leads? He watches videos of dolphins, how they arch their backs and propel with vertical movement.
Sounds much cooler — and much more honorable — than using Ligandrol and breaking the doping rules.
Just because Dressel became America’s Olympic king, a triumphant face of the Games, doesn’t mean his teammates aren’t furious that Russians are in the pool. After Ryan Murphy finished second Friday to a Putin backstroker, Evgeny Rylov, he let loose. “It is a huge mental drain on me throughout the year to know that I’m swimming in a race that’s probably not clean,’’ Murphy said. “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 decisions that they’re making the wrong decisions. … I don’t know if it was 100 percent clean. And that’s because of things that have happened over the past. There is a situation — and that’s a problem.’’
He was joined by Britain’s Luke Greenbank, who finished third in the same 200-race and aimed his wrath directly at Russia. “Obviously, it’s frustrating as an athlete, having known that there’s a state-sponsored doping program going on, and feeling like maybe more could be done to tackle that,’’ he said.
Putin’s servants at the Russian Olympic Committee responded with — what else? — snark. Said the statement, astoundingly: “Yes, we are here at the Olympics. Absolutely. Like it or not … English-language propaganda, exhausting verbal sweat in the Tokyo heat. Through the mouths of athletes offended by defeats. We will not console you. Forgive those who are weaker. God is their judge.”
To which the opinionated American, Lilly King, delivered her latest anti-doping salvo. “There are a lot of people here that should not be here,’’ she said after winning a silver and bronze but no gold. Sitting beside Murphy, King added, “I try not to think about that, but I also wasn’t racing anyone from a country who should have been banned and instead got a slap on the wrist and a rebranding of their national flag. I personally wasn’t affected, but Ryan was.’’
Murphy also was harassed for his comments, he said, leading him to backtrack Sunday after revealing that his family and girlfriend received unspecified feedback that was “not okay.’’ Said Murphy: “I think the world needs to do better in terms of fighting doping. I never mentioned specific athletes. I never mentioned specific countries. And that’s how it was taken, and that’s disappointing to me that it was taken that way.”
It had been pretty clear Friday which country he was talking about. Who got to him? What was in the messages? Hell, after I took one minor shot at Putin last week, a middle-of-the-night Instagram e-mail appeared on my phone from … St. Petersburg, Russia. Someone who isn’t afraid to attach his name to a screed is Travis Tygart, head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, who told Reuters that Russian officials have made a “mockery of the Games by their thirst for medals over values. … They want to continue to lie, deny, and attack those with the courage to stand up to their deceit and blatant disregard for the rules and the truth."
That’s why we should be reveling in the American champion who does things the right way, the clean way. ‘‘I'm proud of myself. I feel like I reached what my potential was here at these games,'' Caeleb Dressel said. “It was just really fun racing. I’ll give myself a pat on the back and then I just want to go home, put it away and move forward.’’
Russia never will move on. It just “ROCs” on in denial and deceit as I await my next e-mail, this one probably from Moscow.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.