When Shirley Babashoff called out the East Germans for doping, it wasn’t just athlete vs. athlete. It was capitalism vs. communism. When Nancy Kerrigan was attacked -- and Tonya Harding's ex-husband was found to be involved -- it was similar. It was white collar vs. blue collar. City vs. country.
Rivalries take root fast, and bad blood can be fun. Let’s take a look at two fresh rivalries from the current Olympics in Rio.
1. Women’s Swimming: Lilly King Vs. Yulia Efimova
There were shades of Babashoff vs. East Germany after the American swimmer Lilly King spoke bluntly about her Russian competitor, Yulia Efimova, who was found guilty of doping as recently as March of this year. Efimova and King were the frontrunners for the 100m breaststroke. Sparring began in the semifinal, when Efimova held up a wagging No. 1 finger following her first place finish.
Seeing the Russian's gesture on a TV screen in the "ready room," King responded with a wag of her own.
“You know, you're shaking your finger ‘number one,’ and you've been caught for drug cheating. I'm just not, you know, not a fan," King said after her own semifinal victory.
With the Twitterverse clamoring over those initial jabs, the next night’s final was nothing short of a showdown. King beat Efimova by more than half a second, and she didn’t exactly let the swimming do the talking. After winning, the American punched the water triumphantly in Efimova’s lane (though she says it wasn't on purpose) and then didn't acknowledge her opponent after the race concluded or during the podium proceedings.
King threw more shade Efimova’s way by saying that the gold medal would be sweeter “knowing [she] did it clean.”
Many valorized the young American for her outspoken, no holds barred truth-telling. (Again, see the Twitterverse).
A column titled “Trash-talking, finger-wagging Lilly King is the perfect Olympian” appeared on Fox Sports. And from an Indianapolis Star column: “Lilly King’s voice of moral clarity.”
More from The Star:
Hurray for Lilly King. Her courage is worth more than the gold around her neck.
Hurray for the boldness of a teenager who defied her coach to stand up for what’s right at a time when she could have focused solely on her own dreams.
Hurray for a Hoosier who’s made her hometown (Evansville), her home state and her university (Indiana) proud not only because of her athletic prowess but also her moral strength.
King’s refusal simply to swim her laps, accept her medal and return home quietly in the face of outrage is an inspiration. And one that goes well beyond the world of sports.
Yet while Twitter and many in the media side with King, others have voiced criticism. Some made the point that Efimova’s blanket villainization as a “doper” may be unfair. Critics suggest that some of the vitriol directed her way (and on a wider scale that directed at Russian athletes) does more harm than good.
Just last week on Only A Game, Patrick Hruby questioned the morals of our collective war on doping, and that theme has continued in the wake of this controversy.
Among others, D’Arcy Maine wrote an espnW column titled “Lilly King, congrats on your gold medal, but you get no points for sportsmanship,” and Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote a piece titled,“In vilifying Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, Americans are splashing murky waters.”
Here’s Jenkins’ summary:
King, 19, is a swaggeringly great swimmer, but the rivalry between her and 24-year-old Efimova in the breaststroke is hardly a simple matter of a clean swimmer prevailing over “drug cheating,” as King put it. The facts of Efimova’s case aren’t nearly so clear cut despite the self-righteous Cold War shunning of her. It’s worth looking a little more closely at the human face of Efimova and maybe even standing in her place for a minute. As she suggested tearfully the other night, “You can just try and understand me, like if you switch you and I.”
2. Women’s Soccer: Hope Solo Vs. Brazil
It's really too bad the U.S. Women's National Team, which was eliminated by Sweden on Friday, won't face Brazil — because a couple of pre-tournament tweets from U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo would have spiced things up.
Before she left for Rio, Solo wanted to be prepared for the Zika virus...
Fans in Brazil jeered Solo just about every time she touched the ball — and especially when she took goal kicks.
Solo expressed some remorse.
"I feel a little bit bad because when you come here you learn for yourself," Solo told the Associated Press. "I think that we've been very hard on the local people.”
But that didn't stop fans in Brazil from heckling Solo. Alas, a Brazil vs. U.S. matchup would have been interesting indeed.