It was somewhat unexpected considering Michael Phelps probably spent the day wondering if he should beat Chad Le Clos or do something really horrible to his well-being in their semi-final matchup, but last night’s women’s 100-meter breaststroke final became the evening’s biggest attraction, pitting Russia’s Yulia Efimova and her suitcase full of doping controversy against U.S. swimmer Lilly King. Sure, there were other people in the pool, but the previous night’s finger waving antics, King saying things like, “You’re shaking your finger number one and you’ve been caught for drug cheating,” and Efimova saying nothing, really kicked things up a few extra notches. Add to the fact that most of Twitter was drawing comparisons between the competition and any Cold War-era film you can think of – from Bond movies to Rocky Balboa fighting Ivan Drago – and you had yourself a real nice little to chant “USA! USA!” despite being one of those people that usually makes fun of fans that do that.
When it was all said and done, it almost seemed like it was inevitable from the start. King had swagger, or whatever you have when you’re swimming. She was brutal, not letting up her criticisms, slinging mud in that good old American election season sort of way. She wasn’t wrong, really. Her accusations weren’t the Trump kind, all without base and totally out of nowhere. Efimova wasn’t supposed to be there. She was barred from Rio for taking performance enhancing drugs; she wasn’t supposed to compete, and then all of a sudden she was. Now, I’m no lawyer, but I’ve seen My Cousin Vinny and plenty of Law & Order, and I always felt like you’re supposed to give the other side a chance to prepare before throwing something at them. In this case, it was the IOC letting a premier swimmer who wasn’t supposed to be competing back into the mix. I think I’d be a little pissed off as well.
But this is sports, right? King was just trying to get into her rival’s head. It’s all mind games, playing off the crowd who booed the woman who’d walk away with a silver medal. You’d think that, but no. Even after winning, according to ESPN’s Bonnie D. Ford, King was still hammering home: “I did it clean.”
And she did. You can’t take that away from her. She’s a competitor and she felt just like other top Olympic swimmer felt: Efimova should not have even been in Rio. She won and she did do it without the help of any illegal substances. She beat a swimmer who isn’t evil (as far as I know, I’ve never met Efimova), but rather a product of a corrupt, state-sanctioned doping program that is backed by Putin’s Russian government in order to beat the United States and make his country look athletically superior. It isn’t exactly diabolical world takeover stuff – like Cobra Commander or Dr. Evil with some stupid plan to destroy the planet with liquid hot magma – but it’s definitely pretty bad, and Efimova is a symbol of that. She’s a symbol, and she’s also a victim. However you choose to look at that is entirely up to you, but the Russian system uses athletes like her to their gain, and that kind of weight can’t be easy to carry.
So yes, you could say King was mocking a victim of a system, but the other way to look at it was that King was mocking the system itself. Efimova doesn’t deserve your boos, the system does. Sure, maybe King was playing off of our knee-jerk reactions towards Russia and doping, and maybe it helped her get a little more kick in her legs when she was swimming. But in competition, that’s perfectly legal. It might not be nice, but nobody ever won a gold medal by being a sweetheart.
Ultimately, King proved herself to be the kind of badass America needs in this age of false swagger and empty thoughts. She had all of us thinking that if we’re going to get into a fight, we’d want somebody like her backing up. She earned Tupac and Triple H comparisons with a healthy dose of Midwestern gumption. She won, she did it clean and she doesn’t feel the need to apologize for any of that. In 2016, in America and Russia, a lot of people would benefit from paying attention to her example.
Watch the Obamas take part in an Olympics quiz and tell Team USA to “bring home the gold.”