A downside to the otherwise welcome demise of the Soviet Union was the way it diluted the grudging sports rivalry between our gleaming Team USA and the so-called “Evil Empire” of Ronald Reagan’s labeling.
At least in the view from sea-to-shining-sea, that made for fantastic, fascinating theater of the good, the bad and the ugly.
This is why the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” hockey game will resonate always and forever, and why the apparent conspiracy to rig the end of the 1972 gold-medal basketball game between the U.S. and the USSR still stings.
Reignited by the widespread Russian doping scandal, state-sponsored and otherwise, the lingering vestiges of all that is why U.S. swimmer Lilly King became an instant icon in a remarkable 24-hour period punctuated by a gold medal swim in the 100-meter breaststroke.
A night after calling out Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova with a finger-wag and a scolding for a past that included a 16-month suspension and a failed drug test for meldonium that was inexplicably later overturned, King emphatically reiterated the point by beating Efimova in a Olympic-record time (1:04.93).
After standing up for what she believed was right, she said afterward, “I felt like I needed to perform even better tonight than I have in the past.”
In her exultance, she splashed twice in the lane immediately alongside of Efimova, who won silver in 1:05.59.
Afterward, King said that was inadvertent, something that just happened to be there, and who’s to say it wasn’t?
But she made her point some by essentially ignoring Efimova, a cold shoulder if not a cold war.
Then she promptly sprawled a few lanes over to hug U.S. teammate Katie Meili, the bronze-medalist.
And she made it more bluntly later, repeatedly referring to it being “a victory for clean sport.”
“It’s incredible just winning gold … and knowing I did it clean and all my work paid off at practice and weights, everything,” said King, 19, who grew up in Evansville, Ind., and attends Indiana University. “Basically my whole life I’ve worked for this. And it’s just an incredible moment.”
The moment in the making began with Efimova being booed by many in the crowd, and in a news conference afterward there was a tremor in her voice and welling in her eyes as she was asked various questions about whether she deserved to be here.
“I have once when I made mistakes, and I have been banned for 16 months,” Efimova said, adding that she didn’t believe she should have been punished for meldonium. “For second time, it’s not my mistakes. I don’t know if I need to explain everybody or not … ”
Then she seemed to remind that the World Anti-Doping Association had been lax in alerting athletes around the world to the newly banned substance.
As she sat at the podium buffered from King by the subdued Meili, her words were hard to understand at times.
But she seemed to catalogue other currently accepted performance-enhancers and the idea of suddenly having them made illegal and turned toward King and said, “And this (would be) your fault?”
The night before, King had made it a point to say she wasn’t one to tolerate what infuriates her.
“I’m not this sweet little girl; that’s not who I am,” she said. “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.”
It had that effect even before Monday night.
In addition to going viral on social media, the exchange and her assertion that she had disagreed with the International Olympic Committee’s stance on allowing Efimova – and presumably other Russian athletes – to compete at all in these Games after more than 100 had been ruled out.
In an interview including questions about King’s words and other swimmers urging more to be done about doping in a sport that has long been contaminated by just that, U.S. swimmer Cody Hill said, “During these Games, there will probably be people who miss the podium to people who probably don’t deserve to be on the podium. And that is wrong.”
More specifically responding to what King had said, Hill said, “Lilly is awesome. Boom … She’s justified.”
Six-time U.S. Olympic medalist Dana Vollmer added a sad footnote to it all.
“It’s hard to say ban a whole country,” she said, “when I hope that there are people (who) aren’t doping.”
And that’s what Russia’s Olympic cheating has reaped: the idea that it is guilty unless proven innocent, really.
So King “was in the moment” only with Meili, whom moments earlier in the ready room she had told, ‘Katie, in 15 minutes, our lives are going to change. We can both medal. We can do this.’ ”
So they did, in the process rekindling a rivalry gone dormant.
“In Olympic Games, usually all wars stop,” Efimova said, later adding, “This isn’t fair.”
But it sure was good theater.