DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, in Rio at the swimming events, commentator Christine Brennan has noticed a sea change in attitudes.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: For the first week of every Summer Olympic Games I've covered, I usually find my way to the swimming venue and stay there. It's instant gratification - no waiting through a long tournament for one medal ceremony at the end. It's all medals all the time. This time in Rio, there's something extraordinary going on at the pool, booing - significant, loud, prolonged booing and finger wagging, all of it aimed at Russian athletes.
Is this bad sportsmanship? No, not at all. It's actually the best kind of sportsmanship - athletes from around the world demanding that performance enhancing drug use stop. This all started when the International Olympic Committee allowed Russia to compete in these games. Actually, it all started with the East Germans in the 1960s and 1970s - but more on that in a minute.
It can be very confusing to figure out who specifically is cheating these days. But this much is clear. In recent years, Russia has taken doping to a diabolical new low. And the fact that 70 percent of its Olympic team is in Rio, including swimmers like breaststroker Yulia Efimova, is a travesty.
To put this in perspective, if the U.S. had carried out a similar doping program, it would've been led by a member of President Obama's cabinet. It would've included the U.S. Olympic Committee, the FBI or the CIA or both and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. It would've involved hundreds of U.S. athletes and gone on for years, resulting in the outright stealing of dozens, if not hundreds, of titles and medals. That's what Russia did.
Enter 19-year-old Lilly King. She's the best breaststroker in the United States. Her stiffest competition was none other than Efimova, twice banned for doping and rightly suspended from Rio until being magically reinstated the other day. King didn't like this - not one bit. But instead of quietly accepting it as generations of swimmers have before her, she boldly spoke out about Efimova's history.
King did all this before the two raced on Monday night. Talk about an Olympic-sized gamble. She brought all kinds of pressure on herself. Then she backed it up, beating Efimova by more than half a second for the most gratifying American gold medal yet at these games. I mentioned East Germany earlier. Back in 1976 at the Olympic Games in Montreal, U.S. star Shirley Babashoff had the courage to call out an East German team that was later found to have cheated in every race.
But the news media of the day was entirely unprepared to acknowledge the coming steroid era in sports and instead went after Babashoff, giving her the dreadful nickname Surly Shirley. Forty years later, swimming in Babashoff's wake, along came King, calling for all dopers to be banned from the Olympics. This time, a new generation of reporters hung on her every word.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Commentator Christine Brennan is a sports columnist for USA Today. So she filed her commentary this week from - where else? - the Olympic Games in Rio.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.