RIO DE JANEIRO – Yulia Efimova looked straight at Lilly King after tearfully pleading her case to be allowed at the Olympics.
King was looking the other way.
That was the most poignant moment of a 15-minute news conference following the women’s 100m breaststroke at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium just after midnight Tuesday.
Ninety minutes earlier, King took gold in an Olympic record time, with the Russian Efimova getting silver.
This came one day after King wagged her finger in the ready room at a video screen showing Efimova, pouring kerosene on the Russian doping scandal. (King never meant for that scene to be seen by millions worldwide; more on that later.)
This time last week, Efimova was banned from the Olympics after the International Olympic Committee said any Russian athlete who previously served a doping ban was ineligible for Rio. Efimova was previously suspended for 16 months from 2013 to 2015 for a positive test.
Efimova appealed and was reinstated by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Saturday, a victory that was a foregone conclusion as world anti-doping rules dictate athletes can compete in the Olympics once they’ve served their bans.
My colleague Alan Abrahamson has more on Efimova’s case here, but that’s the drive-thru version leading into one of the tensest victory conferences in Olympic history.
The medalists marched single file into a room of 40 journalists, Efimova followed by bronze medalist Katie Meili, followed by King.
Meili sat between Efimova and King, perhaps by design.
The first question went to Efimova, who took a big gulp of blue Powerade and paused before answering. She may have been trying to compose her best broken English; she may have been trying to keep from pouring tears.
How do you feel about how the crowd booed you?
“Right now I feel like really happy for all stuff that came with me the last half-year,” Efimova said, referencing a messy meldonium positive test and resulting ban that was lifted. “This is best, where I actually do prefer right now after everything. I can’t explain it. You can just try and understand me, like if you switch you and I.”
King mostly looked straight ahead, certainly not at Efimova, and expressionless. The 19-year-old University of Indiana student ran her hand through her long brown hair..
The second question went to King.
Can you speak to the Russians being here, and what it means to back up your words tonight?
“I do stand by what I said yesterday, but I still have to respect the IOC’s decision that they made and swim my race like I planned and not let that affect me,” she said.
Efimova put her hand on her chin during the answer and peeked at King, who did not return the look.
Next came Efimova’s emotional plea.
The Russian was asked if she believed it was fair that she gets to compete and Russian runner and whistleblower Yulia Stepanova is not allowed. Efimova pleaded her own case, ignoring Stepanova.
“I have once when I made mistakes, and I have been banned for 16 months,” Efimova said of her 2013-15 ban, before going into this year’s meldonium case. “For second time, it’s not my mistakes. Like, I don’t know why actually I need to explain everybody or not. I just like have some [hypothetical] question.”
Efimova dives into her meldonium explanation:
“Like if WADA say, like, tomorrow, stop like yogurt, or nicotine or, I don’t know, protein, that every athlete use, and they say tomorrow now it’s on banned list. And you stop. But this is stay [in] your body like six months and doping control is coming, like, after two months, tested you, and you’re positive. This is your fault?”
Efimova turned her head to her right, looked past Meili and stared directly at King, who was looking away. Efimova wasn’t asking King to converse, but punctuating her case.
King had no reaction.
The questions continued, first to King.
How were the last 24 hours?
“A lot of pressure, obviously,” she said. “Even just going into your first Olympic final, any Olympic final for that matter, the pressure’s going to be on. But especially standing for what I believe is right, I felt that I needed to perform better tonight than I had in the past. So that’s where I was at.”
Then Efimova was asked if she regretted even coming to Rio after all that has happened.
“I’m happy to be here, and for me it’s very hard,” she said. “I feel very happy because after everything it’s a good time. It’s the best I can do right now.”
King was asked if sprinter Justin Gatlin, who has also served a doping ban, should be allowed to compete for Team USA.
“Do I think people who have been caught for doping offenses should be on the team?” she said. “No, they shouldn’t.”
Another question: Why didn’t King congratulate Efimova after the race?
“One, I was really in the moment with Katie and celebrating the U.S. victory,” she said. “Also, if I had been in Yulia’s position, I would not have wanted to be congratulated by someone who was not speaking highly of me. So if she was wishing to be congratulated, I apologize. She had a fantastic swim. I always look forward to racing her, but I was really just in the moment celebrating with Katie.”
Finally, concluding 15 minutes of back-and-forth, Efimova fielded one more question.
Should Russian sports officials have acted more decisively against doping to prevent the situation you’re in right now?
“I’m like last four years training in the USA,” said Efimova, who has trained in southern California. “I have been in Russia just like maybe one month a year. I don’t know what’s going on in Russia. … Usually in the Olympic Games, all wars stopping. Now they like try to do, they like can find a way how they can like beat Russia. … This is unfair.”
With that, the three women were excused. King, followed by Meili and then Efimova walked from behind the table out a side door.
King and Meili exited together.
Once Efimova left the room, she met an older man in Russian apparel and a credential, likely a coach or team official.
They emotionally hugged. The man kissed her on the cheek and put his right arm around her back. They slowly walked through a hallway.
If they looked straight ahead, they would have seen the backs of King and Meili.
There is a postscript to the last two days.
King never meant for her true thoughts on Efimova to come out in that finger-wag, ready-room video, her coach said Monday.
“We had a team meeting today, and she said, hey girls, I just want you all to know that they film you in the ready room,” Ray Looze said. “It was hilarious. She goes, you may want to watch what you’re doing in there. So it wasn’t something she wanted to make public.”
Regardless, Looze said that King “cracked open” the thoughts shared by the U.S. team.
“We really are trying to take the high road,” he said. “I told Lilly tonight, I said, this is about a race. Do not say anything. Enough’s enough. Now we’ve got to race.”