- Lilly King twists knife into Yulia Efimova after beating Russian to gold
- Sun Yang responds to criticism with victory in men’s 200m freestyle
In the end, the most compelling drama took place in a press conference room in the bowels of the aquatics centre. At one end of the table sat the new Olympic breaststroke champion Lilly King from the United States. Further down sat her controversial Russian rival, the silver-medallist Yulia Efimova, keen to explain why people should have more sympathy over her previous 16-month ban for taking steroids. As a symbol of the fragile mood of the Games, the sport of swimming and global politics it was spot on.
It rounded off an evening that, depending on your perspective, either summed up the hopelessly compromised modern Olympics or saved the IOC’s bacon. When two swimmers previously banned for doping offences are garlanded on a podium in front of millions of TV viewers worldwide it is hardly a resounding win for athletic integrity. Yet, as King bluntly informed the world she had just achieved “a victory for clean sport”, it was equally possible to see her triumph as the moment the forces for good finally began their overdue fightback.
It had not seemed likely to end that way when China’s Sun Yang, another with a contentious doping record, stormed to 200m freestyle gold. Sun, who still maintains his positive test and three-month suspension this year was a result of taking heart muscle medication, was a spectacular winner of a thrilling race, battling back to defeat South Africa’s Chad le Clos. So when Efimova, back in circulation having been suspended between 2013 and early 2015 after testing positive for a steroid hormone, looked to be edging an equally gripping women’s 100m breaststroke contest, the worst-case scenario loomed. Had the Russian also won gold the last fig-leaf of the IOC’s shredded dignity would have floated embarrassingly away. A number of people owe King, perhaps the steeliest 19-year-old on the planet, a vote of thanks.
Her intervention, along with Australia’s Mack Horton at the weekend, will certainly be seized upon by clean athletes and disenchanted spectators, who have been growing steadily more militant in Rio. With a tearful Efinova just yards away, King used her victory platform to twist the knife a little further, even hinting the American sprinter Justin Gatlin should not have been selected. “Should people who have been caught for doping issues be on the team? No they shouldn’t. There shouldn’t be any bouncing back and forth. I stand by what I said yesterday but I have to respect the IOC’s decision.”
Given the rancorous back story with Efinova – King mockingly raising her index finger to mimic the Russian’s No1 gesture following her semi-final victory, while the defending Olympic champion Ruta Meilutyte tweeting her dismay at Fina’s decision to allow Efinova to compete at the Games – it made for an unmissable race, a globally-broadcast morality play lasting just a shade over a minute.
The loud boos that accompanied Efimova to her blocks further increased the sense of melodrama.
As it turned out it was King, brimming with determination in the last 25 metres, who came through in 1min 4.93 secs, a mere 57 hundreths of a second ahead of Efimova, with the Plymouth-based Meilutyte back in seventh. King could not have looked more thrilled, leaving Efimova to rail against inaccurate perceptions from her fellow competitors, the mixing of politics and sport, why her doping “mistake” should be forgiven and the “unfair” treatment of Russian athletes. “They have no idea of the facts. They can’t imagine what it would feel like if they swapped places with me.”
It was hard to remember a more charged press conference, the inevitable consequence of athletes being left exposed to the weather-vane of public opinion by their governing bodies. An IOC spokesman was even forced to issue a plea to athletes “to respect their fellow competitors” following the particularly pointed weekend spat between Sun and Horton. Horton, having beat his Chinese rival into second place in the 400m freestyle, openly refererred to his rival as a drug cheat and has since been subjected to a torrent of social media abuse from the Far East.
As Sun skipped around the arena last night brandishing his national flag to polite applause, it was not hard to guess how this sequel was going down back in his homeland. Having served his ban – curiously it was not announced by the Chinese authorities until after it had elapsed – he clearly sees this as the beginning of a new chapter. “What is past is past,” he insisted. “The medal to me means I have to work even harder.” The American bronze medallist Conor Dwyer described Sun as “one of the greatest freestylers of all time”, but added a caveat. “We just have to be more on top of cleaning up the sport. The people that do get caught I think should be punished harder. I think Sun is a good guy, a great competitor. But as far as drug testing goes I have no control of that.”
In fairness to Sun he did produce a rousing comeback,surging back over the second half of the race after Le Clos had gone out ominously fast. Having touched first in a time of 1min 44.65secs he sat on the lane markers punching the air with both arms and milking the applause of his country’s supporters. The only hiccup came when he tried to toss them his swimming hat and flipped it back into the water behind him. Otherwise he looked an insanely happy and vindicated man.
Michael Phelps, who produced the second fastest time in the 200m butterfly semi-finals, added his views, unsurprisingly backing up his team-mate King. “It’s sad that today in sports in general, not just only swimming, there are people who are testing positive who are allowed back in the sport and multiple times. It breaks my heart and I wish somebody would do something about it.”
Phelps will bid for his 20th Olympic gold medal in the 200m butterfly final which is being billed as a rematch with Le Clos, who edged him out in London four years ago, but the Hungarian duo of Tamas Kenderesi and Laszlo Cseh are also very much in contention. “Should be a fun race,” Phelps said to which Le Clos countered, ““May the best man win. I’ll race my heart out. Of course there’s a huge rivalry between Michael and myself. I race to win and I want to beat Michael.”
There was scant consolation for Britain’s James Guy, who could not quite replicate the outstanding feat of his room-rate Adam Peaty and finishing an agonising fourth behind Sun. Starting in lane eight he delivered his best swim of the Games but ended up suffering the sixth fourth-place finish for a GB athlete at these Games so far.
Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, in contrast, cannot stop winning, adding the 100m backstoke title to her gold in the 400m medley. There was also gold and a new Olympic record for American Ryan Murphy in the 100m backstroke but only frustration for Missy Franklin. Having won four gold medals in 2012, the former queen of American swimming finished last in her 200m freestyle semi-final and failed to make the final.
For many, though, this will be remembered as the night when a significant new King was crowned.