Lilly King bangs drum, but others need to clean up the mess

August 11, 2016, 5:10 AM

— -- RIO DE JANEIRO -- It was a postrace news conference more strained and theatrical than any ready room at the Olympic swimming competition. The gold and silver medalists sat at either end of the table: a defiant American teenager suddenly thrust into the role of anti-doping crusader, and a shaken Russian swimmer trying to defend her presence.

Neither has been served well by the powers behind the rings. Lilly King should have been able to enjoy her evening without shouldering that responsibility. Yulia Efimova shouldn't have been in Rio at all, left to dangle as the symbol of a failed system.

Too late now. King, a brassy 19-year-old champion from Evansville, Indiana, who isn't technically old enough to celebrate with champagne, spoke her mind and tore the foil off the bottle. The sound you hear from Rio is a giant cork popping and frustration foaming out.

The façade of harmonized anti-doping rules has crumbled. Athletes are tired of dropping their drawers on command for a broken system, tired of being cautious and diplomatic.

"It's incredible, winning the gold medal and knowing I did it clean," King said after winning the 100-meter breaststroke in Olympic-record time (1:04.93, 0.57 ahead of Efimova). The performance came 24 hours after King and Efimova engaged in a public finger-wagging war and King labeled Efimova a drug cheat. "I'm not a fan," King told NBC after the semifinals.

King's statements followed similar ones by Australia's Mack Horton, who won the 400 freestyle the day before. Other swimmers chimed in with support. The question is stubbornly afloat on the surface now, unlikely to be submerged again.

"Total props to him for speaking out first," King said of Horton. "I admire that. He said what everyone was thinking and I also said what everyone was thinking. I think it's a victory for clean sport just to show you can do it while competing clean your whole life."

King was a toddler when Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong were in their prime, but she seems fully aware that doping knows no borders. She was specifically asked about 2016 U.S. track team member Justin Gatlin, a sprinter who has served two previous doping suspensions. She didn't blink.

"Do I think people who have been caught for doping offenses should be on the team? No, they shouldn't," she said.

If it appears unseemly for athletes to become verbal vigilantes in this gathering ostensibly held to promote peace, love and understanding, assign the blame where it belongs. Blame the sporting politicians who ignored whistleblowers in Russia, stalled on investigating, then invented eligibility rules on the fly when evidence of state-sponsored doping in Russia forced their hands.

Legal challenges spilled over into the opening weekend of the Games. Efimova, 24, was one of a group of Russian athletes the International Olympic Committee tried to prevent from competing because of a previous doping suspension -- a 16-month ban ending in 2015 that was imposed after she tested positive for a steroid contained in a supplement.

The maneuver was doomed because of a previous arbitration ruling, and widely interpreted as an empty gesture following the IOC's controversial compromise to clear the way for most of the Russian delegation.

Earlier this year, Efimova became one of hundreds of athletes -- the majority from Russia -- who tested positive for the newly banned substance meldonium. The World Anti-Doping Agency later had to peel back many of the positives after belated research showed the drug could linger in the system for months, giving athletes plausible deniability to say they had stopped taking it before Jan. 1 of this year.

But the meldonium flap left Efimova tagged as a two-time doper and made her a lightning rod for the increasingly high-voltage argument about how to reform the anti-doping system. That debate did not come in time to save the credibility of these Games.

Efimova got the green light to race the day before preliminary heats, and was loudly booed by the crowd at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium all three times she walked out to the blocks. She sobbed as she stopped briefly for Russian reporters after the race, but had regained her composure by the time the podium ceremony was held. All three medalists did their duty in posing for pictures and walking the pool deck without betraying any hostility.

King and Efimova did not shake hands.

"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."

King put intense pressure on herself by calling out Efimova. Her coach at Indiana University, Ray Looze, urged King to take the high road, but admitted he didn't throw a sawhorse in the way once she started talking.

"The athletes have to start speaking up, and they have," Looze said.

"The IOC and FINA [the sport's international governing body] respond to money," he added, biting off the last word like so much beef jerky. "If the money dries up, then they'll clean it up. Lilly kind of cracked it open, but we all believe the same way. Nobody likes this."