The drama began on Sunday, when Lilly King, a 19-year-old American swimmer from Indiana, won her heat in the 100-meter breaststroke, qualifying for the semi-finals with a time of 1:05.78. In the pool, King wagged her index finger, as if to remind her competitors that she was #1. In the first semifinal, as King watched from the swimmers’ ready room, the Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova mimicked the finger wag after she won the race, qualifying for the final. And just like that, it was on. King wagged a finger back at the projection screen, still sporting a pink and orange towel around her neck. “You wave your finger number one, and you’ve been caught drug cheating?” she told NBC. “I’m not a fan.”
The rivalry, NBC was sure to emphasize, was more than just friendly competition between fierce athletes: It was practically a battle between good and evil. On the one side was American exceptionalism, and on the other was Russian cheating. Efimova only found out she’d be competing in the Olympics on Saturday, the day before her first event, after the entire Russian Olympics squad had come under intense scrutiny thanks to varied allegations of doping. In 2014, Efimova tested positive for the steroid DHEA and was banned for more than a year; in March this year she also tested positive for meldonium, the same drug that got the Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova banned from competing for two years. Every time she stepped into the pool area in Rio, Efimova was booed by the crowd. But on Monday night, King soundly beat her for the gold medal, setting a new Olympic record in the 100-meter breaststroke in 1:04.93. Not since Balboa beat Drago has American justice been so definitively delivered.
The U.S./Russia beefing livened up Olympic coverage that’s been markedly less charged in recent years. Reporting from the Athens Games in 2004, The Washington Times lamented the lack of an arch enemy to tear down. Russia, once “a big, bad, imposing supervillain, similar to USA Basketball ... has become just another player at the Games, one more nation panning for gold in the unglamorous waters of modern pentathlon,” it wrote, concluding that all this honorable brotherhood made the Olympics rather dull. “Nationalism makes the Olympics worth watching. Jingoism makes them worth caring about.”
In this spirit, NBC offered up another villain on Monday night: the South African swimmer Chad le Clos. In an extraordinary moment captured in the ready room, le Clos appeared to practice a shadow-boxing routine while the veteran Olympian Michael Phelps glared at him in response. It was the stuff that memes are made of. And when Phelps beat le Clos in the 200-meter butterfly semifinal, the first question NBC asked him after he emerged, dripping, from the pool, wasn’t about the race, but rather what was going through his mind as he’d fixed his rival with a death stare minutes earlier. “Nothing,” Phelps responded, diplomatically, but the footage told a different story.