PLYMOUTH Leander swimmer Ruta Meilutyte is facing a major battle to retain her Olympic 100m breaststroke title.
The 19-year-old world record holder, whose Rio preparations have been hampered by a broken elbow she suffered last September, has qualified for the final, which will take place at 2.54am on Tuesday morning.
However, she was beaten in her semi-final by controversial Russian Yulia Efimova, having earlier been edged out in her heat by American Lillia King.
Meilutyte’s semi time was 1:06.44 and her heat swim 1:06.35, which was exactly two seconds slower than her world record set in 2013.
The Plymouth College pupil, who competes for Lithuania, goes into the final only fourth fastest, with all eight qualifiers going sub 1:06.74 in the semis. She does know she has swam faster than any of the field, but, not surprisingly, she has found it hard to return to the heights she showed before breaking her elbow in a cycling accident last September.
Meilutyte had a lot of support in her semi in Rio in the early hours of Monday morning, with the crowd booing Efimova.
The Russian was not on the original start list for the heats, having been banned by the IOC for previous doping offences. However, the 24-year-old appealed to Court of Arbitration for Sport, who ruled that athletes could not be banned from Rio on the basis that they have been previously sanctioned and handed the decision back to FINA, the governing body of swimming.
Efimova was quietly added to the start list just 24 hours before the heats, which saw Meilutyte moved races to accommodate her.
The Russian was banned in 2013 after traces of an anabolic steroid were found in her system.
She then tested positive meldonium earlier this year and was provisionally suspended and was facing a life ban from the sport.
However, FINA lifted the ban they said on advice from the World Anti-Doping Agency.
But fellow Russian sports star Maria Sharapova was handed a two-year ban for a similar offence by the International Tennis Federation.
The IAAF banned all Russian track and field athletes from competing at Rio, as did weightlifting. The International Paralympic Committee announced on Sunday that all Russians would be barred from their Games following the McLaren Report.
Although Meilutyte has kept quiet on the Efimova situation, Irish swimmer Fiona Doyle hit out at her inclusion in the race after the heats.
Doyle missed out by just one place on reaching the semi-finals.
She said afterwards: “Cheaters are cheaters. She (Efimova) has tested positive five times and she’s gotten away with it again. It’s like FINA keep going back on their word, and the IOC keep going back on their word.
“And FINA caved in to (Vladimir) Putin, and that’s just not fair on the rest of the athletes who are clean. Who are you supposed to trust now? They have signs all over the village saying we are a clean sport, and it’s not. And I just don’t think that’s fair.”
American King, who has qualified fastest for the final by just 0.02 seconds, said of the Efimova situation: “I think it’s unfortunate that we have to deal with those things in the sport. We’re just going to race her just like we would normally.”
Meanwhile, Mount Kelly swimmer Daniah Hugal, competing for Libya, clocked 1:25.47 in the heats. Although she did finish last, the 17-year-old, who was hoping to inspire girls in Libya, did swim nearly three second quicker than her qualifying time.