Lilly King Could Teach the IOC a Lesson About Olympic Courage

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2016

Lilly King sends water flying as she celebrates her victory.
Lilly King sends water flying as she celebrates her victory.ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images

Lilly King won't leave Rio de Janeiro with as many gold medals as Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky, but she just became the favorite swimmer not only of many Americans but also of people all over the world who've had enough of drug cheats in sports.

And King's bandwagon would be crammed with new fans even if she hadn't won the 100-meter breaststroke at the Olympics on Monday.

King brought new meaning to "zero tolerance" when she got into a finger-wagging duel with Yulia Efimova, branding her Russian rival a "drug cheat."

That should be a learning moment for all the spineless folks at the International Olympic Committee—the ones who have been talking zero tolerance for years but who didn't have the guts to back it up with a blanket ban on Russia at these Olympics.

It probably isn't fair that Efimova now personifies all the systemic cheating in which Russian officials and athletes have indulged. But it also probably wasn't fair that she was permitted to compete in Rio.

Efimova had served a 16-month suspension for doping and then tested positive this year for the newly banned drug meldonium. Efimova also was one of seven Russian swimmers who were initially banned from the Rio Games because of past positive tests or because they were named as participants in Russia's state-sanctioned doping program.

Yulia Efimova was a quiet observer as King donned the American flag.
Yulia Efimova was a quiet observer as King donned the American flag.Martin Meissner/Associated Press
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Efimova's suspension was mysteriously lifted over the weekend, with no explanation. But King took care of that awkward silence when she responded to seeing Efimova raise a finger signaling No. 1 after her semifinal Sunday.

"You're shaking your finger No. 1, and you've been caught for drug cheating," King admonished in a brief interview on NBC. "I'm just not a fan. I'm going to go swim my heart out for USA, and hopefully that turns out the best."

It was a bold move by the 19-year-old Indiana University swimmer. She called out a reigning world champion and also put herself in the middle of a major Olympic controversy just as she was preparing to swim the race of her life.

And she stood by every word when she spoke with reporters later, saying (via Martin Rogers of USA Today):

Basically, what happened this morning was that I finished and then I waved my finger a little bit, because that's kind of how I am. Then tonight, just now, Yulia got done with her swim, and I am watching in the ready room—and there she is shaking her finger. So then I got done, and I beat her time, so I waved my finger again. People probably think I am serving it up a little bit, but that is just how I am.

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.

King also stirred the pot a bit more as the final approached. NBC cameras showed her staring down Efimova in the room where competitors wait before being called out to race. She pointedly looked Efimova's way again just before the start.

And then she backed up her talk fearlessly, grabbing an early lead and winning in 1:04.93 to Efimova's 1:05.50. Another American, Katie Meili, grabbed the bronze in 1:05.69.

King unleashed her celebration when she swung a fist wildly into the water, then went to Meili to share the victory. King didn't acknowledge Efimova while they were in the water, but she did give her beaten opponent a light pat on the shoulder as they retrieved their possessions from the deck.

It all added up to a great moment that will live in Olympic lore. King had let loose a piercing stare that would have made Pat Summitt proud. She was as resolute for her cause as a young Billie Jean King. And she was as pugnacious as Mary Lou Retton was when she went for a 10.

But let's remember one thing.

King made the confrontation personal when she called out Efimova. She didn't accuse every Russian—just the one with the cloudy history who was trying to take King's gold medal.

Katie Meili added a bronze to King's gold in the 100-meter breaststroke.
Katie Meili added a bronze to King's gold in the 100-meter breaststroke.Adam Pretty/Getty Images

In recent years we've seen too many Olympians get their medals belatedly, after investigations that take months or even years to oust phony winners. Efimova is one of those drug cheats. There's no getting around that, because it's right there on her rap sheet.

Athletes are understandably growing more and more bitter about seeing the cheats getting to hear their national anthems at the medal ceremonies while the real winners look on as their chances for glory—and endorsements—pass by.

And King also is willing to call out cheats on the U.S. roster. In remarks reported by Rogers, King said Americans with drug-cheating pasts shouldn't be competing in Rio, including Team USA's top hopes in track's 100-meter dash: Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay.

"Do I think people who have been caught doping should be on the team? They shouldn't," she said. "It is unfortunate we have to see that.

"It is just something that needs to be set in stone that this is what we are going to do. Let's settle this and be done with it. There should not be any bouncing back and forward."

Meanwhile, the IOC is likely getting itchy about all the booing of Russian athletes. Efimova no doubt will inspire more derogatory noise when she swims again in the 200-meter breaststroke and a relay. And it doesn't help that while Efimova gets to swim, a ban remains in place on Russian 800-meter runner Yulia Stepanova, the whistleblower whose information was crucial to uncovering the doping scandal.

So, if the boos and the animosity irritate the IOC, tough. The Olympic caretakers had the chance to make this a Russia-free Games, but they couldn't muster as much courage as a 19-year-old from Indiana.


Tom Weir covered 15 Olympics, including seven Summer Games, as a columnist for USA Today.


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