Bad blood in the water injected the Olympics with what’s been missing for years — a good, old-fashioned Cold War rivalry.
Lilly King, a feisty swimmer from Evansville, Ind., put her muscle where her mouth is by winning the 100-meter breaststroke in the Olympic record time of 1:04.93 and leaving Russian drug cheat Yulia Efimova in her wake.
In these times of growing antagonism between the U.S. and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, when the concepts of glasnost and détente seem like chapters in an outdated history book, King and Efimova reprised the roles once played by the ice hockey and basketball teams.
A geopolitical rivalry was laid bare in the pool at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, where trash-talking and finger-wagging replaced shoe-banging and computer hacking.
Efimova was the villain. The reigning world champion was suspended in 2014 for 16 months after testing positive for the anabolic steroid DHEA and earlier this year she failed a test for the recently-banned meldonium — the drug that got Maria Sharapova suspended from tennis. Efimova argued that banning her from the Olympics would be duplicating a sentence served.
King was the Hoosier-next-door heroine, unafraid to call out the dirty athletes who destroy the wonder and drama of sports.
“I showed you can still compete clean and win,” King said, a day after the two exchanged mocking “I’m No. 1” gestures. “You wave your finger ‘No. 1’ and you’ve been caught drug cheating? I’m not a fan. I’m not this sweet little girl. That’s not who I am.”
But aside from the U.S. vs. Russia superpower symbolism, Monday’s duel in the pool demonstrated that athletes are fed up with having their careers compromised, endorsements taken and medals stolen by dopers.
The showdown wasn’t just about how the Olympics are a cathartic depository for jingoistic passions, how the medal count serves as a scoreboard substitute for war. King’s candidness exposed the pain of the clean athlete.
The International Olympic Committee, in a display of hypocritical spinelessness, ignored the World Anti-Doping Agency’s recommendation to ban the entire Russian Olympic team after an investigation confirmed an elaborate state-sponsored system of doping athletes and hiding positive test results. Medalists from the Sochi and London Games were among the cheaters.
The IOC, which had proclaimed zero tolerance for doping, tossed the hot potato of Russian athlete eligibility to individual sport federations, causing chaos on the eve of the Olympics. All Russian athletes who had served previous drug bans were supposed to be excluded from the Rio Games.
Efimova appealed and was reinstated along with five other swimmers without explanation from the swimming federation (FINA), Court of Arbitration for Sport or IOC. King didn’t find out until Saturday that Efimova was back in the Games.
Efimova was booed as she walked onto the deck before the race. King shot her a sneer as they took the blocks in adjacent lanes. After beating Efimova by .57 seconds, King celebrated with bronze-medal-winning teammate Katie Meili and refused to give the traditional handshake or hug to Efimova.
Spectators jeered when Efimova received her medal. Her smile was strained. King stepped up next to her to loud cheers. They studiously avoided eye contact.
In an awkward moment, the three medalists moved close to one another for the requisite group photo. When King paraded around with the Stars and Stripes draped across her shoulders, American fans expressed their patriotic pride. Efimova acted like the silver medal was an albatross around her neck. You almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
"I can't say that I'm happy, it's just good that I was able to compete," she said between sobs. “I haven’t slept for the past month. I knew that lots of people were counting on me to win. That’s why I’m so upset that I didn’t do it.
“It has been crazy. I spend only one month a year in Russia. I don’t understand what is happening there. During the Olympics all wars are supposed to stop. This is unfair.”
King criticized not only Efimova and the IOC but also twice-penalized Justin Gatlin, a medal favorite on the U.S. track and field team.
“Do I think someone who has been caught doping should be on the team?” she said. “No, I don’t.”
What a change from 1976, when American swimmer Shirley Babashoff was lambasted by the American public and media for being a sore loser and nicknamed “Surly Shirley” for pointing out the obvious — that East German rivals who denied her gold in four races had deep voices and mustaches.
Australia’s Mack Horton inflamed tensions with China when he didn’t say hello to rival Sun Yang “because I don't have time for drug cheats." Horton beat Sun in the 400 freestyle. They’ll meet again in the 1,500. Sun served a three-month suspension for doping in 2014.
Sun insisted he is clean and “I don’t think we need to concern ourselves with the Australian’s mind tricks.” The Chinese team manager said Horton has “a lack of good manners and upbringing” and demanded an apology.
It’s good to see swimmers making waves about a scourge that’s only getting worse. Athletes are tired of sharing the Village with competitors they can’t trust. Cleansing sports is going to require harsh penalties, strong words and bold triumphs like the one by King.
Michael Phelps was among those praising his outspoken teammate, saying it’s “sad” that two-time cheats still have the opportunity to compete in the Olympics.
“It breaks my heart,” he said. “I wish somebody would do something about it.”