RIO DE JANEIRO – The Republican candidate for President has caused quite a stir lately by buddying up to the Russians. Relations aren’t going quite so well here at the pool.
American Lilly King won the gold medal in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke Monday night, beating rival Yulia Efimova one day after calling out the Russian as a drug cheat.
On Sunday, King wagged her finger at Efimova when the Russian celebrated her performance in the semifinals. Then she backed it up by leading wire to wire in a final that had the feel of an aquatic cold war. She was asked after the race if she had made a statement about doping.”
“I hope I did,” said King, a 19-year-old Indianapolis native. “We can still compete clean and do well at the Olympic Games, and that’s how it should be.”
King had made it clear that Efimova, a two-time drug offender, didn’t belong here. Efimova was one of several Russians who were originally banned after her country’s state-sponsored doping operation was laid bare for the world – after the entire Russian track and field team was banned.
But Efimova, who tested positive for a steroid hormone in 2014 and then for meldonium (the drug that got Maria Sharapova suspended from tennis) in March, escaped on a technicality. Her test came soon after meldonium was put on the banned list, so they let her skate, or swim.
So there Yulia was Sunday, holding up the No. 1 sign after winning her semifinal at the Estadio Aquatico Olimpio. King, watching on a TV feed in the arena, she wagged her finger at Efimova in righteous disapproval.
“You’re shaking your finger No. 1, and you’ve been caught for drug cheating,” King said. “I’m just not a fan.”
Wow. We haven’t heard anything like that since Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down the wall. Suddenly, Monday’s 100 breast final was being billed as good vs. evil, a skip back to the good old days when the Americans were plucky amateurs and the Soviets and East Germans the Communist cads.
This wouldn’t be happening, of course, if the IOC had heeded the call of many in the international sports community to ban the entire Russian team instead of just the track and field squad.
Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme was so outrageous – giving athletes cocktails mixed with drugs and alcohol; trading out urine samples through holes in a wall; testers threatened by national security – that it seemed impossible to determine who was clean and who was not.
But the IOC voted in late July to send the issue back to the individual sports federations, while blaming the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for moving too slowly on the Russian case and allowing political motives to affect their investigation (something the IOC knows well).
Thomas Bach, the new IOC president, said it would be unfair to go with a “nuclear option” by banning all Russian athletes. So the track and field folks were still banned, but other “clean” athletes could compete.
The late rush resulted in more than 100 more Russian athletes being banned from Rio, while allowing 271 to compete. That included Efimova, who entering with the world’s second-fastest 100 breastroke time this year behind the 1:05.20 that King swam at the U.S. Trials.
Efimova was a reviled figure at the pool, booed by the Brazilian crowd. The locals also cheered when the Australians caught the Russians at the wall to win bronze in the 4x100 freestyle relay late Sunday night.
Evidently, most of the Rio fans agreed with King that the IOC should have slapped a total ban on Russia. But while sympathetic to the athletes’ concerns, the men at the IOC decided not to make all the Russians pay for their country’s sins.
“Clearly the current system is not working,” USOC chairman Larry Probst said Friday at an opening press session. “We’ve consistently advocated for a truly independent organization that is properly staffed and funded and has the authority to punish and sanction offenders.
“This is not just Russia,” Probst said. “This is a global problem and it has to be addressed as quickly as possible.”
That’s true enough. American athletes (hello, baseball; hi, Lance) have been among the worst PED offenderss. The U.S. track team has several members who have served suspensions. But the Russians took cheating to a new level.
“I think our athletes are ready to compete and are looking forward to it,” Probst said, “and I don’t think they’re spending any time worrying about whether the Russians are going to be there competing against them.”
That was before King wagged her finger at Efimova, making the USOC crowd appear soft and naive. Michael Phelps said last week he’s never competed in a clean Olympics, and chances are he still hasn’t.
A cynic might suggest the Lilly-Yulia flap was the sort of drama the IOC wanted when it let in the Russians. Who doesn’t love a good vs. evil showdown? TV sure does. Most sports fans hadn’t even heard of Lilly King before she wagged her finger like Bernie Sanders.
The 100-meter breaststroke final became a more compelling Olympic drama because of it. Tension was building when they climbed onto the blocks at exactly 11 p.m. Rio time for the final -- King in Lane 4, Efimova right beside in Lane 5.
King surged to the lead as Efimova had a slow start, and never lost the lead. Efimova closed in the final 25 meters, but King held on, touching in 1:04.93, an Olympic record. Efimova won silver and American Katie Meili won the bronze.
King thrust her fist in the air, then turned to her left and slapped twice at the water in Efimova’s lane.
“Yeah, I think I just floated over that way,” she said. “I wasn’t actually planning to hit the water in her lane. I was just trying to hit the water. That’s kind of what happened.”
King then swam to Meili, who was in Lane Two, and they embraced. Efimova stared at them, her arms draped over the lane divider. King never looked her way or congratulate her. They did not look at each other on the medal stand, either.
“Um, I don’t think she really wanted to be congratulated by me at that point,” she said.