RIO DE JANEIRO — Team USA succeeded where the International Olympic Committee failed on Monday night by shutting down one of Russia’s top drug-cheat gold medal hopes as an open war over doping broke out at the Aquatics Center.
Lilly King became one of Rio 2016’s most popular champions by vanquishing her tainted Russian rival in the 100-meter breaststroke final.
After decades of controversy and failures by the sporting authorities, multiple Olympic swimmers have taken the fight against drug abuse into their own hands in an unprecedented public show of dissent.
In the run-up to the games, the greatest threat to King’s gold medal aspirations was reigning world champion Yulia Efimova. That seemed to have changed two weeks ago, when the IOC announced that past Russian drug takers would not be allowed to take part on the games.
In a bizarre twist, double drug cheat Efimova was quietly reinstated to the official IOC start lists last month. Despite a previous 16-month drug ban and then testing positive earlier this year for meldonium—the heart medication also favored by Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova—Efimova was allowed to race.
When she won her semi-final and celebrated with a finger in the air, King was filmed watching the live footage on a monitor and responding with a wagged finger of her own. “You’re shaking your finger No. 1, and you’ve been caught for drug cheating,” said King, who is 19. “I’m just not a fan.”
By calling out Efimova after the semis, King attracted global attention to their showdown.
“That’s just my personality. I’m not this sweet little girl, that’s not who I am. If I do need to stir it up to put a little fire under my butt or anybody else, then that’s what I’m going to do,” she told NBC.
The crowd in Rio was fully aware of the significance of the matchup and they booed ferociously as Efimova was introduced.
As soon as the starting buzzer sounded, King’s determination was clear. By the time the women came up from their dives in adjoining lanes, King was already ahead.
Efimova looked to be closing over the final 25 meters, but the Indiana University student would not allow herself to be caught.
The crowd celebrated a decisive victory over a drug cheat for the second time in the first three days of competition.
Australia’s 400-meter freestyle champion Mack Horton has been involved in an on-going feud with drug cheat Sun Yang. The Chinese swimmer, who recently was jailed for motoring offensives, was also allowed to compete despite testing positive for a banned heart drug in 2014.
He and Horton have enjoyed a lively rivalry in recent years, and Sun attempted to psych out his opponent by repeatedly splashing him with water during a warm-up session.
“I didn’t respond because I don’t have time for drug cheats,” Horton said afterward.
His words have enraged the Chinese media and their swimming team who demanded an apology.
“We have been noticing what has been said in the past two days by Horton, who launched a malicious personal attack,” said team manager Team manager Xu Qi. “We think his inappropriate words greatly hurt the feelings between Chinese and Australian swimmers.”
That was nothing compared to the Chinese media’s take on the dispute. The Global Times described Australia as “Britain’s offshore prison,” writing, “We don’t know if it is Horton who is silly or it’s the Australian media that is evil.”
Horton triumphed in the pool over 400 meters, leaving Sun in tears, but Sun is not done yet. They meet again in the 1500-meter on Saturday. And Sun, the world record holder, is confident: “1500 meters. I am the king. Yeah?”
Chances are, the drug cheat will have the last laugh. But who knows? There is some justice in the pool.