Cold War rhetoric that dominated the Olympics in the 1970s and 80s resurfaced in Rio after a simmering dispute between Russian and American swimmers boiled over.
The race pitted American teenagers Lilly King and Katie Meili against Russia’s Yulia Efimova, the reigning world champion, and a symbol of her country’s doping scandal.
Initially banned from Rio, the 24-year-old won a last-minute appeal allowing her to compete, prompting protests from the Americans, including King, who said the Russian should have been banned.
In scenes rarely witnessed at an Olympics, Efimova was jeered by the crowd in Rio and after narrowly losing the gold to King on Monday, chants of USA echoed around the Olympic Aquatic Stadium.
No to Gatlin
“I’m actually glad I made a statement and I ended up coming out on top in the race,” King said. “I basically said what everybody else was thinking so they (other swimmers) were glad I spoke out and had the guts to say that.”
King and Meili, who finished third to earn the bronze medal, threw their arms around each other in the pool and again at the medal presentation. King said she never considered congratulating Efimova.
“I was really just in the moment,” she said. “If I had been in Yulia’s position, I would not have wanted to be congratulated by someone who said those things about me. But if she was wishing to be congratulated, I apologize to her.”
After the race, Efimova broke down, sobbing uncontrollably as she started to speak to journalists. She composed herself enough to attend the medal winner’s press conference but struggled to hold back tears as she was grilled about doping.
“I once made a mistake and served my ban,” she said, referring to the 16-month suspension incurred after testing positive for a banned steroid.
She was given a provisional ban this year for testing positive for meldonium but that was overturned in May after she appealled to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
“The second time was not my mistake. I don’t know how to make people understand. If yoghurt gets banned and you’re positive, is that your fault?”
Efimova, who lives and trains most of the time in the United States, said she was a victim of politics.
“It’s very upsetting when politics interfere into sports and I encourage athletes to understand each other’s problem, not enter into politics,” she said.
“I’m in Russia only one month a year, I don’t know what’s happening there and I don’t believe it.
“I can’t understand what’s going on. Usually at an Olympic Games all wars stop but now they can find a way to beat Russia and to use athletes. This is so unfair.”
However, King said her stance wasn’t anti-Russian-it would apply equally to Americans such as track and field sprinter Justin Gatlin-a two-time offender.
“Do I think people who have been caught for doping offences should be on the team? No they shouldn’t,” she said.