Hostile takeover: Lilly King just turned an Olympic swim meet into a grudge match

RIO DE JANEIRO – Breaststroke as bloodsport. It’s an unsettling concept.

That’s what we had Monday night, when the women’s 100-meter race in that discipline exploded into a savage geopolitical bullfight. Across two contentious nights, an exciting showdown between the world’s two best female breaststrokers morphed into a strident referendum on PEDs in Olympic sports, with a freckle-faced American teenager standing her ground and a defeated Russian doper offering laments and defenses.

When this dramatic, intense, awkward, emotionally loaded night was over, an Olympic silver medalist departed the swimming venue sobbing on the shoulder of her coach. Her last words before leaving the post-race press conference: “This is unfair.” But for Russian Yulia Efimova, that’s the price of being punished for positive drug tests, and representing a country steeped in systemic drug cheating, and lobbying for last-minute inclusion into this competition.

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An Olympic gold medalist probably didn’t get the warm afterglow she envisioned. There was a feel-good story to be told, and nobody was telling it. But for Lilly King, that’s the price for publicly and unapologetically calling out your drug-using rival – something she did in comments to NBC Sunday night, stoking a throwback Cold War furor.

Suddenly this 100 breaststroke wasn’t about who can swim fastest as much as it was a race for the moral high ground, and a referendum on the soul of the sport. With side debates on sportsmanship and candor to top it off.

Everyone comfortable with that?

Lilly King celebrates her win in the 100-meter breaststroke on Monday. (AP)
Lilly King celebrates her win in the 100-meter breaststroke on Monday. (AP)

Silver medalist Efimova, playing the role of Everything That’s Wrong With The Olympics, was trash-talked Sunday by King, defeated by King on Monday, booed by the masses, then cross-examined by the media and ultimately led away in tears. The medal around her neck must have felt more like an anvil than an award.

Gold medalist King, playing the dual roles of Clean Sport Avenger and Mean Girl, was given scant opportunity by the media to savor an incredible climb from a modest club team in Evansville, Ind., to the top of the Olympic medal stand. Instead the remarkably frank Indiana University sophomore was asked to expound on the International Olympic Committee (paraphrase response: I don’t make the rules, I just work here) and to weigh in on two-time banned American track sprinter Justin Gatlin’s participation in these Games (paraphrased response: not a fan).

American bronze medalist Katie Meili, playing the part of Demilitarized Zone, was strategically placed between the two antagonists on the interview dais. That was the topper.

Nobody asked a thing about the race, as I recall.

That’s a fascinating story in and of itself – a triumph of scouting by Indiana coach Ray Looze, and of will by King. Looze pored over videotape until he discovered a weakness in Efimova’s fast-finishing race pattern – she was prone to hurrying her smooth stroke if pressed early and losing her famously fluid rhythm late. So the plan was hatched for King to attack from the start and apply stress.

“We were going to try to break her early,” Looze said. “We looked at races when she got beat, and when people took her into a high-tempo stroke early and she couldn’t finish as well. We got to that point with 10 meters to go.”

That’s when King pulled away from what looked like a photo finish, ultimately winning by more than half a second in Olympic-record time. It was the work of a woman in possession of incalculable confidence.

“She’s always had that,” Looze said. “When you first look at that, you might think she’s cocky. But she’s honest, and that’s who she is. She totally believes in herself. I bet there wasn’t one doubt in her mind she was going to win that race.”

Of greater interest to the media was King’s actions after the race. During her exultation after winning gold in Lane 4, she slapped her hand down on the water in Efimova’s Lane 5. Reporters clucked over that.

And then King bolted the other direction to embrace teammate Meili and celebrate together. There was no post-race handshake or congratulations with Efimova. Reporters really clucked at that.

I loved King’s explanation of why she didn’t shake Efimova’s hand.

“If I had been in Yulia’s shoes, I would not want to be congratulated by someone who did not speak highly of me,” King said. “If she was wishing to be congratulated, I apologize.”

A lot of other people didn’t love that explanation. Because this, basically, is what a lot of media people want: trash talk and bad blood, but it has to be followed by fake politeness. Especially at the artificially noble Olympics. If the fakery isn’t there, tsk-tsk.

What fueled the King-Efimova feud are not new Olympic concepts, of course. Performance-enhancing drug users have been the scourge of the Games for decades, embittering those who are trying to win without them.

The difference is that athletes who haven’t tested positive are speaking out like never before.

Why? Because the IOC and World Anti-Doping Association have failed in their mission to create a level playing field. When the IOC exacerbated that failure by allowing almost all non-track Russian athletes into these Olympics – after evidence of systematic cheating in that country – they opened a rhetorical pandora’s box. The criticisms of both the system and specific athletes have flowed freely.

And swimming has been Ground Zero for that.

It began when Australian Mack Horton said this about Chinese rival Sun Yang after Yang reportedly taunted him in the warm-down pool: “I don’t have time or respect for drug cheats.” Yang previously had been suspended for a positive PED test.

“Total props to him for speaking out first,” King said of Horton – both of whom defeated their tainted opponents. “He said what everyone was thinking and I said what everyone was thinking.”

And while USA Swimming honchos might have been squirming in their seats a bit when King sounded off about Efimova – repeatedly – they did a most unusual thing for athletic coaches and administrators. They did not muzzle her.

“We were supposed to take the high road,” said a chuckling Looze, who is also an assistant on the U.S. women’s team. “But they’re adults, and they have opinions. … Some people aren’t going to do anything about it, so the athletes are going to rise up.

“Lilly kind of cracked it open. But we all believe the same way. Nobody likes this.”

But after cracking it open, it was King’s job to shut the door on it by winning the race. She applied plenty of pressure to herself, and it was time to put up or shut up afterward.

“It would have been really hard [to continue criticizing Efimova],” Looze said. “Then it’s sour apples.”

But King got it done, and how do you like them grapes?

On the medal podium, just before the national anthem, King held her medal out to look at it and mouthed, “Wow.” After the song was over – she sang loud and proud – Lilly went into the stands to hug her parents, Ginny and Mark, and brother, Alex.

After that she toured the pool deck for photographers, draped in the flag. In the stands, Ginny clasped her hands against her cheeks and watched a dream come true.

It’s a sweet American success story. But when breaststroke becomes bloodsport, it loses something along the way.

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