RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – A wagging finger. A stunning swim.
And with that, a win for clean athletes everywhere in an Olympics where no one is sure the playing field is really level.
Yes, Lilly King is quite a swimmer. The gold medal hanging around her neck Monday night was evidence enough of that.
But the brash 19-year-old from Indiana was much more than that on an electric night at the Olympic pool, where she held off Russian Yulia Efimova in a 100-meter breaststroke showdown that was loaded with overtones of a new doping Cold War.
A day after calling Efimova out for doping, she backed up her words with a spectacular performance in the pool. In doing so she showed more courage in 100 meters than Olympic officials have shown in the last 100 days.
“I basically said what everybody thinks,’’ King said.
The day before she had wagged her finger from just off the pool deck to a televised shot of Efimova celebrating her win in a semifinal heat. On national TV she explained what she was thinking – and she did it in no uncertain words.
On the eve of the biggest race of her life, King wasn’t afraid to take a stand.
“You just got caught for drug cheating. I’m not a fan,’’ King said.
It was a bold statement, the kind you never hear from athletes in the heat of competition. What made it even better was that it was spontaneous, and seemed to come straight from the heart.
And then she backed it up with a swim for the gold. An Olympic record swim for the gold, just to put an exclamation point on the night.
“I do think it’s a victory for clean sport to show you can do it after competing clean all your life,’’ King said.
That Efimova was even swimming in the lane next to King was puzzling to begin with. She was one of seven Russian swimmers originally banned after the International Olympic Committee ruled that past Russian dopers could not compete.
Yet there she was in the pool, trying desperately to overcome King’s early lead. There she was on the medal stand, with the silver medal hanging around her neck.
She was a double juicer, banned for 16 months after testing positive to an anabolic steroid in 2013 and for meldonium in March of this year. Yet somehow international swimming officials found a way to let her compete.
King didn’t think that was right. Neither did another swimmer who has won more Olympic medals than anyone while competing clean.
Michael Phelps has seen the same kind of thing. He has had the same kind of doubts.
And he applauded King as much for what she did speaking out as what she did in the pool.
“I think you’re going to probably see a lot of people speaking out more,’’ Phelps said. “I think she’s right, I think something needs to be done. It’s kind of sad today in sports in general, not just in swimming, there are people who are testing positive who are allowed back in the sport and multiple times. It kind of breaks what sport is meant to be and that’s what pisses me off.’’
King didn’t just call Efimova out, she stared her down before the two took to the blocks for their race. Things were just as icy afterward, as Efimova stood alone with her silver medal with no congratulations from King or her teammate, bronze medalist Katie Meili.
“If she was wishing to be congratulated I apologize. She had a fantastic swim,’’ King said at a press conference afterward where Efimova tried to defend herself against the doping charges.
If the IOC hadn’t bowed down to the Russians to begin with last month, there would have been no such drama. While the Russian track and field team was banned from the games, most of the country’s other athletes were allowed to attend, including some who have had positive doping tests.
That didn’t sit well with King, who doesn’t compromise on the issue. Asked if US sprinter Justin Gatlin should be on the team after two drug suspensions, she didn’t back off.
“Do I think people who have been caught for doping offenses should be on the team? No I don’t,’’ she said. “It should be set in stone. There should be no bouncing back and forth.’’
Simple words, spoken from the heart. King is not only a clean athlete, but now an Olympic champion.
And that’s something to wag a finger about. (TIM DAHLBERG AP Sports Columnist)