May 18, 2016
Forty years later, Shirley Babashoff wonders how people can still be so blind. So stupid.
The excuses. The stories. The lies.
Because that, when you get down to the heart of it, is what doping really is.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with people. If you’re not that good a swimmer, not that good at track and field, do something else,” Babashoff told USA TODAY Sports. “Don’t cheat someone else who worked so hard.
“It’d be like if someone worked for a year or four years and you went up and you stole their paycheck,” she said. “It’s the same thing. It’s theft.”
As the International Olympic Committee wrestles with what to do about Russia amid allegations its medal-winning athletes were aided in at least two Games by a widespread, state-sponsored doping program, Babashoff is a sobering reminder of why it matters. And why it takes more than lip service to really do something about it.
After there was Mark Spitz but before there was Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, there was Babashoff, an American swimmer so fierce and strong she set 11 individual and relay world records and won eight Olympic medals. Two were gold.
It should have been six.
Babashoff finished second to East German swimmers four times at the 1976 Olympics – swimmers who were later found to have been pumped full of testosterone as part of the communist country’s massive doping program. Swimmers who shattered world records by several seconds and then climbed out of the pool looking as fresh as when they hopped out of bed that morning.
After four years of swimming 20 miles a day, seven days a week, training with a men’s team to push herself, Babashoff was branded a disappointment and a poor sport. All because the 19-year-old was smart enough to see the East Germans for what they were – and audacious enough to call them on it when no one else would.
“Every time I got beaten, I just felt like – I didn’t know why no one else saw anything,” Babashoff said. “I couldn’t hold it back on the podium. I couldn’t get up there and go, `Hey, I’m second, I’m so happy!’ It’s hard for me to reach over and shake the hand of someone standing there who just cheated me out of a gold medal.”
Instead of getting her picture on the front of a Wheaties box and becoming the Summer Games’ equivalent of Dorothy Hamill, Babashoff faded from public view. She retired a few months after Montreal and settled into a quiet life in Southern California, raising her son and working the last 30 years as a postal carrier.
She would talk about Montreal if people asked, but rarely spoke about it publicly. Not even after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the dirty secrets of the East German state police records were revealed, confirming what Babashoff had said all along.
“I can’t say I felt vindicated,” she said. “When the news came out, I knew that. A lot of people knew that. It wasn’t a big secret to me.”
Now, however, Babashoff, 59, is speaking out. She’s co-authored a book with Chris Epting, Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program, which will be released in July.
She’s also part of a documentary, The Last Gold, which tells the story of the 1976 U.S. 4x100-meter freestyle relay team that beat East Germany in what is still considered one of the greatest upsets in swimming history.
The relay was one of only two events the East German women didn’t win in Montreal. Babashoff swam anchor as the Americans beat the world record – held by East Germany – by almost 4 seconds.
“Oh gosh,” she said, laughing in delight at the memory. “To do that, every time I think about it, it gives me goosebumps. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
“We ended it on a good note,” Babashoff added. “… I had to just come home and get on with my life. No way I could lock myself up and keep thinking about it.”
Though Babashoff’s life has not been defined by regrets or what ifs she still wants the International Olympic Committee to do right by her – and everyone else cheated by the East Germans.
The IOC has refused to change the results from the 1972, ’76, ’80 or ’88 Olympics, saying in 1998 “there are too many variables involved” because so much time had passed. Never mind the trove of documents detailing the East German doping regime, along with testimony from many of the athletes themselves.
Or that the IOC had no trouble stripping Lance Armstrong of his bronze medal in 2013, 13 years after he’d won it.
“I know they’ve been very stubborn about it, haven’t wanted to address it and open up that can of worms,” said Epting, Babashoff’s co-author. “But the irony is, if they did do it, it would go away.”
Except it never really does. Forty years after the East Germans turned the Montreal Olympics into an exhibition of their pharmaceutical might, Russia is accused of perpetuating a similar fraud.
“People are always thinking of a way to cheat,” Babashoff said. “People just can’t accept that they’re human beings and can only do what you can do.
“Not everyone’s going to be an Olympic swimmer,” she added. “Do something else! Don’t start taking drugs and pretending like you’re something you’re not.”
Not all champions have Olympic medals. And even a gold medal can’t disguise the fact that dopers are no different than the common thief.