Lilly King is no stranger to making headlines and she wasn’t about to change in Tokyo.
The American swim star caused a stir when she took aim at fierce rival Yulia Efimova over doping allegations in 2016 and she was back at it again five years later. She never said the word “Russia” but it was clear there was one country King was talking about as she dropped a bomb on her way out of the Olympics.
“There are a lot of people here that should not be here,” King said on Sunday as the swimming portion of the Games came to an end.
King’s rebuke came after compatriot Ryan Murphy, who won bronze in the men’s 100m backstroke and silver in the 200m backstroke, launched a grenade at Russian Evgeny Rylov, who won gold in both of those events.
“I am swimming in a race that’s probably not clean,” Murphy said.
You won’t find Russia on any medal tally in Tokyo. Instead, Russian athletes are competing as the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). Their flag and anthem are banned from major competitions until 2022 as punishment for the country’s state sanctioned doping program.
While Russia copped a four-year ban from international competitions, athletes found to be clean are allowed to compete. Many – such as Murphy and King – believe the punishment was the equivalent of being slapped with a wet lettuce leaf.
“I wasn’t racing anyone from a country who should have been banned and instead got a slap on the wrist and rebranded their national flag,” King said. “So, I personally wasn’t as affected. But Ryan was. I feel like that has tainted your Games, and for that I’m so sorry.
“There were, I’m sure, a lot of people from certain countries competing this week that probably shouldn’t have been here.”
The comments will come as no surprise to those who know King. The outspoken 24-year-old has a reputation for taking no prisoners and speaking her mind.
‘I’m so nasty’: How King breaks rivals
King is a competitive beast. Winning sustains her and the seven-time world champion will do anything to put her rivals off. She relishes playing the role of the villain.
Whether it’s psyching them out in the marshalling area, taking pot shots in press conferences or delivering death stares on the blocks, King often wins races before she even gets in the water.
“I’m so nasty,” King told Yahoo Sports in a profile piece before the Olympics kicked off.
“I really enjoy watching people crumble under pressure. I know that’s, like, really evil of me. But it’s kind of fun when you’re in it.”
Last month she added: “I always like to say that I like to win the race before it starts.”
Australian swimming legend Leisel Jones regularly made mention during the last week of King’s ability to torture opponents mentally.
“Lilly King is notorious and loves to psych people out before the race. She loves to have people fear her every time they race her,” Jones said on Channel 7. “She is so confident, she is a very vocal athlete and she loves getting behind the blocks and making sure everyone knows just where she is.
“She would be a terrifying opponent, I think. I don’t know that I would like to race against her.”
But the pre-race mind games didn’t scare everyone in Tokyo. King, the Rio gold medallist in the women’s 100m breastroke, was beaten in her pet event for the first time since 2015.
American 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby pulled out a stunning swim to win gold, while South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker claimed silver.
Not a noted 200m specialist, King then swum extremely well in her second individual final of the meet to win silver behind Schoenmaker. There were touching scenes in the pool as the swimmers hugged and congratulated each other.
But Jones suggested King should have spent less time playing mind games and more time on herself.
“Lilly King has had an interesting journey to this point. She does love the 100m breaststroke but was not looking her usual Lilly King self,” Jones said before the 200m final. “Before the Olympic season started she was doing trash talking to say that US women were going to win every event here. Unfortunately for her it ended up in a bronze medal.
“Lilly King looks really proud and comes out very strong. She likes to psych people out. Maybe she’s focused too much on trying to psych other people out and didn’t focus on her race number.”
King was thrilled to win silver in the 200m final, as Jones pointed out what she thought were flaws in the US star’s approach.
“She’s not swimming at her very best here. We expected Lilly King to be the name on everyone’s lips but it’s not the Lilly King we are used to,” Jones said.
“I think that’s the problem. Once you try to mess with other people’s game plans and not focusing on your own race, that’s where you get caught up in someone else’s story.”
‘That’s bulls**t’: Bold prediction falls flat
Before flying to Japan, King was keen to talk up the chances of America’s women on the swim team.
“I think the women, if we have the meet we can have, can win every single individual gold,” King said. “That would be pretty cool, right? But really, just looking at it, I think that is a genuine possibility.”
King’s prediction fell flat. Aussie superstars Emma McKeon, Kaylee McKeown and Ariarne Titmus had something to say about that.
The US still dominated – winning 30 medals all up in the pool – but fell short of the 33 pieces of bronze, silver and gold they brought back from Rio.
When reminded of her prediction at a press conference late last week, King snapped back.
“I think that quote has been twisted several times. I said I believe that the Americans could win every single individual gold medal. All I was saying was that I believe in my team and I think we have a good shot at swimming well,” King said. “There you go.”
She added it was “bulls***” that medals of a colour other than gold weren’t given the credit they deserved.
“Excuse my French but the fact that we’re not celebrating silver and bronze is bulls***,” King said after her 200m final.
“What is that about? You get to bring a medal home for your country and just because we compete for the United States and maybe we have extremely high standards for this sort of thing that doesn’t excuse the fact that we haven’t been celebrating silver and bronze as much as gold.
“I might be more happy with this medal than I’ve been with any of my previous medals including my two golds in Rio. That’s simply just for the way that I’ve handled myself.
“We really should be celebrating those silver and bronzes.
“Those are some of the greatest moments of an athlete’s career so why would we not be celebrating that?”