Column: It’s a mess as defiant Lilly King tops sullied rival Yulia Efimova

American swimmer Lilly King is all smiles after defeating rival Yulia Efimova of Russia for gold in the women's 100-meter breaststroke on Monday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

For one long chilling moment behind the starting blocks, Lilly King stared down Yulia Efimova.

Then, about a minute later, sending a message to the alleged Russian drug cheats who populate these Olympics, she beat her down.

On a dramatic night at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on Monday night, a 19-year-old kid from Indiana did what the world’s Olympic and swimming officials were too weak to do and what legions of athletes only dreamed of doing.


She stopped a two-time drug offender from turning a sordid history into gold, defeating Russia’s Efimova by a half-second in winning the 100-meter breaststroke.

If only it had ended there. But King continued to attack. Moments after the race ended, she threw her fists down with two big splashes in runner-up Efimova’s lane before swimming in the other direction to hug third-place finisher Katie Meili.

She blew Efimova off. She never congratulated her. She never even acknowledged her. Not in the water, not on the pool deck, not until they were finally forced to stand next to each other on the medals podium.

“If I was in Yulia’s position, I would not want to be congratulated by someone who wasn’t speaking highly of me,” King said.

It was truly a fight to the end, not very sporting, not very pretty, equally triumphant and ugly, an appropriately uncomfortable ending to an awkward saga that will be repeated throughout these Games.

Because Olympic officials refused to ban a Russian team that has been resoundingly implicated in a state-run doping scandal, the competitions will be policed by the booing fans and taunting athletes, and King handled it with jab after jab.

“It’s a victory for clean sport,” she said. “It shows you can win if you compete cleanly all your life. That’s where I’m at.”

As King spoke at the post-race news conference, Efimova sat at the far end of the table instead of next to King in a position usually occupied by the silver medalist. She appeared shunned, and stunned, staring sadly into space. When Efimova spoke at the end of the conference, she was fighting back tears. During what should have been a joyous time for someone who just won an Olympic medal, it looked and felt awful.

“I can understand, what all the newspapers write, all the TVs give the news . . . but it’s not true,” she said.

Make no mistake. Efimova, 24, shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a competitive swimming pool. How she suddenly showed up on the starting blocks one day after the opening ceremony remains a mystery.

Three years ago, she served a 16-month suspension after testing positive for steroids. Then, this spring, she was suspended again for testing positive for meldonium, the same drug that led to tennis’ two-year suspension of Maria Sharapova.

Efimova’s suspension was temporarily lifted because of insufficient information about the drug, but then, two weeks ago, the International Swimming Federation cited her drug history and banned her from the Olympics. But somehow, without explanation, she showed up Saturday, the first day of competition. Ninety minutes before her race, she wasn’t on a start list, but then suddenly there she was, diving into the pool in all her defiant glory.

She was loudly booed then — especially from the athletes’ section of the stands — and has been loudly booed since.

Her appearance here is such a sham that even her former coach at the Trojan Swim Club — a USC-based postgraduate club swimming team — is calling foul.

“Should she be in the Olympics? If we are going to have clean sport — probably not,” Dave Salo, who also coaches USC’s swim team, said in an email. “Despite my 38-year protestation of any performance-enhancement supplementation of any kind, I’m afraid we might have lost that battle.”

Salo noted that Efimova, who lives in Marina del Rey, was suspended from the club after her most recent suspension, and added that he has no problem with other swimmers like King challenging her legitimacy.

“Unlike the protests in the ’70s when the ‘clean’ athletes were chided as whiners with silver medals, the ‘clean’ kids can be critical of the system with gold medals around their necks and maybe their voices will make a difference,” he said.

It would have made more of a difference if King had handled it with more grace.

It started on Sunday night when Efimova wagged her finger in a No. 1 sign after winning her heat. Watching it on TV in the warmup room, King was seen sarcastically waving her finger back at the TV in a dismissive gesture. Later, on NBC, King explained herself: “You’re shaking your finger number-one and you’ve been caught for drug cheating. I’m not a fan.”

Some would argue that King’s toughness was the only way to combat the alleged cheating.

It’s a real mess, and it’s so unfair to the athletes trying to navigate the lack of spine shown by the International Olympic Committee since a New York Times report this spring in which a former Russian anti-doping official exposed an elaborate cheating scandal during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

After the story, the World Anti-Doping Agency conducted its own investigation and discovered a “mind-blowing level of corruption within both Russian sport and government,” according to Travis Tygart, WADA chief executive.

WADA called for the entire Russian delegation to be bounced from this summer’s Games.

The IOC agreed to ban most of the Russian track and field athletes, but refused to issue a total team ban, shamefully passing the buck to small governing bodies of individual sports, most of whom can’t face the responsibility or ramifications of such action.

In the end, at least 271 members of the 389-person Russian delegation were cleared to compete, setting the stage for a morality-charged competition that has already featured jeers and taunts and accusations.

This is what happens when a governing body sells out its ideals, shirks its duties and abandons its athletes.

On this night, the right swimmer did what she had to do, and claimed a victory that needed to be won. But there were too many moments when it felt like everyone lost.

Twitter: @billplaschke


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