Within the scope of an endless – and seemingly unwinnable – war for the integrity of swimming, Monday’s women’s 100m breaststroke final was but a minor skirmish. Yet Lilly King made sure it would be a night long remembered for the Americans as she won gold and then called into question her team-mate Justin Gatlin’s place at the Olympics.
Less than 24 hours earlier King had turned the final into the most compelling grudge match of these Olympics. Her Russian rival, Yulia Efimova, who served a 16-month suspension for a pair of positive drug tests before failing another screening for meldonium earlier this year, was initially one of seven Russian swimmers banned from Rio who had either failed tests or were targeted by Wada’s investigation into state-sponsored doping. But the 24-year-old was controversially reinstated to the competition on Saturday amid unclear circumstances, with neither the International Swimming Federation nor the International Olympic Committee offering clarification.
After the final King was asked whether Gatlin, who will run in the 100m in Rio, and has previously been banned for drugs, should be on the US team: “Do I think someone who has been caught for doping should be on the team? No, I don’t.”
The 19-year-old Indiana native had earlier captured the gold medal with an Olympic-record time of 1:04.93, edging Efimova by 0.57 seconds in a showdown pregnant with anti-doping overtones. Afterward when King swam into lane two and embraced team-mate and bronze medalist Katie Meili while chants of U-S-A! U-S-A! rang through the upper reaches of the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, the sensation of Cold War revival was palpable.
Already branded a villain – behold the lusty boos that have cascaded from the stands whenever she’s emerged from the ready room – Efimova appeared to mock King by wagging her finger after Sunday night’s first semi-final. That prompted the 19-year-old to speak out. “You’re shaking your finger No1 and you’ve been caught drug cheating,” said King, who returned the finger-wag to Efimova in the ready room before posting clinching the top seed in Monday’s final. “I’m not a fan.”
The final seemed too close to call. The pair had combined for the four fastest times in the event this year – and King’s margin of victory in the preliminary heats (0.01) was even closer than in the semis (0.02). But with ill will flowing down the center of the pool as King and Efimova faced off in lanes four and five, it was the American who prevailed comfortably.
Afterward Efimova wept for several minutes in the arms of her agent in the mixed zone before fielding questions from reporters, saying that she’d lost sleep over the uncertainty of her ban in the weeks leading up to the Olympics.
King was unrepentant on her earlier comments about Efimova however. “I basically said what everybody’s thinking,” she told journalists after the final. “They were glad I spoke out and I had the guts to say that and I appreciate their support.
“Standing up for what I believe is right, I felt like I had to perform even better tonight than I have in the past.”
The gold medal completes a meteoric rise for the Indiana native, who this time last year was a college-bound recruit out of FJ Reitz High School. After setting American records for Indiana University in the 100m and 200m breaststroke at the NCAA championships, she qualified for both events at the US trials. Now she’s an Olympic champion and overnight folk hero back home.
“Tonight has been so crazy. My life is changing right now. I’m a gold medalist and it’s what I’ve always wanted to be and it’s an incredible feeling,” said King, who became only the third American winner in the event after Megan Quann in 2000 and Cathy Carr in 1972. “I’m probably going to start crying. I’m usually not a crier but this is a special moment so we’ll see if it gets to me or not.”
Also capturing a maiden Olympic gold was Ryan Murphy, who bested a stacked field in the men’s 100m backstroke for the United States’ sixth consecutive win in the event. David Plummer was a first-time Olympic medal winner at the age of 30 after he claimed bronze in the same race.
“The adrenaline is going so hard for me right now, I don’t even feel tired just because I’m so excited,” said Murphy, whose Olympic-record time of 51.97 represents the second-fastest ever. “This means everything to me. I’ve been swimming for 16 years and to have it come to this is just a dream come true.”
North Carolina native Kathleen Baker was edged for silver in the 100m backstroke, coming in 0.30 seconds behind Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu (58.45), who obliterated the world record in the 400m individual medley by more than two seconds on Sunday night.
This article was written by Bryan Armen Graham in Rio de Janeiro, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 9th August 2016 03.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010