The 1976 U.S. Olympic women’s swim team was cheated out of their much-deserved glory.

After the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the East German dictatorship wanted to gain international recognition and targeted sports supremacy as the tool.  The German Democratic Republic [GDR], a country of 17 million, first won more gold medals than their West German colleagues at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.  The East Germans claimed nine golds at the 1968 Mexico City Games and 20 golds four years later on “enemy territory” in Munich.  In 1976, the GDR exploded, capturing 40 gold medals at the Montreal Olympics.  By 1980, East Germany was second only to Russia in the total medal count at the Moscow Games.

In August 1993, long after the former GDR had disbanded to accede to the reunification of Germany, evidence was found that East German team doctors has systematically administered steroids to their athletes .  State Research Plan 14.25 was the state-sponsored doping program supervised by the Stasi, the GDR secret police.  From 1971 to 1990, East German athletes – both male and female — were given steroids, amphetamine, human growth hormones and various other performance-enhancing drugs as part of their training.

The GDR doping program was systematic, coercive and extremely secretive.  It is estimated as many as 10,000 athletes — some as young as ten — were affected.  Child prodigies were scouted by the government.  The most promising were then plucked from their families as pre-teens and placed in intense Olympic training programs.  The doping program was not only cheating but an abuse of the athletes’ health.  Administered without their knowledge or their parents’ consent, they became victims.  Many suffered physical and psychological damage in the ensuing decades.

The East Germans had unusually deep voices, a telltale sign of steroid use in women.  When a frustrated American coach brought it up in Montreal, the East Germans quipped, “We came here to swim, not sing.

The doping protocol benefitted GDR women the most, as testosterone and anabolic steroids were more effective on female athletes.  But they also suffered the most.  The East German women experienced masculinization, which includes a deepening of the voice, growth of facial hair, and irregular menstrual cycles.  Their developing bodies received steroid cocktails, sacrificing their health in the name of winning medals and enhancing the international sporting prestige of the GDR for propaganda purposes.  Many of the women have gone on to experience psychological problems, fertility issues and ovarian cancer.  Some delivered children with birth defects from the aftereffects of doping.

Like drug cheats Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong, the East German women’s swim team defrauded the athletic process.  Jones and Armstrong forfeited their Olympic medals and were publicly humiliated, while Bonds was never punished.  More than 43 years later, the International Olympic Committee has yet to strip the East Germans of their phony medals.  Of equal importance is the IOC’s failure to award those gold medals to their rightful owners.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, the U.S. women claimed 17 medals, including eight gold, five silver and four bronze.  Of their eight gold-medal-winning races, six were captured in world record time while the other two established new Olympic marks.  The American women finished 1-2 in two events and swept the 200m butterfly.  They also won both relay events in world record times.  One of those relay golds belonged to then 15-year-old Shirley Babashoff, who also garnered two individual silver medals at the ’72 Summer Games.

Meanwhile, East Germany won zero golds, four silvers and one bronze while setting no world or Olympic records in Munich.  One of the East Germans collecting silver was then-13-year-old Kornelia Ender.  She was responsible for three of the four silvers the GDR girls took back to East Berlin.

“For every Olympic champion in the state program, there are at least 350 invalids.  Gymnasts with deformed spines, skiers needing injections to their knees at 14 due to intense training.” – former East German ski-jumper Hans-Georg Aschenbach.

Babashoff did not take notice of the East German swimmers in Munich, saying, “They weren’t outstanding swimmers.”  By the time of the 1973 FINA World Championships in Belgrade a year later, things had started to change.  “The East Germans came out of the locker room and they were so big they looked like wrestlers.”  Led by Ender, the GDR took ten of 14 gold medals in Belgrade.  Two years later, they matched that total at the World Championships in Cali, Columbia.

Four years after failing to win a single race in Munich, the East Germans became Wunder Madchen – Wonder Girls – in Montreal.  GDR women won ten of 11 individual gold medals at the 1976 Games.  In 13 total events [including two relays] the GDR women shattered eight world records, equaled another and set three Olympic records.  The East German women finished 1-2 in five events, swept the 200m butterfly and captured 18 total medals.

Ender was the swimming star of the Games.  The 17-year-old became the first female swimmer to win four gold medals at a single Olympics, all in world record times.  Ender beat Babashoff twice in head-to-head races and added a silver in a relay event.  While training for her two Olympic appearances, Ender – who set 32 career world records — was told by GDR coaches and trainers that the “vitamins” they were doling out would help her regenerate and recuperate from grueling workouts.  The teenager attributed her added muscle mass to rigorous training.  When she became suspicious of her changing body and refused to take testosterone in 1977, the most decorated female swimmer in GDR history was banned from the Olympic team by the Marxist government.

If the record books were to [justifiably] remove all the GDR performances for the 1976 Olympics, Shirley Babashoff would have been the superstar of the Games with five gold medals [three individual, two relay] and an individual bronze medal.  She would have received a hero’s welcome and been offered numerous endorsements.  Shirley’s life would have been changed forever.

Shirley Babashoff and her teammates were branded as Ugly Americans for merely speaking the truth.

Instead, she was dubbed “Surly Shirley” by the press and publicly vilified.  Time magazine ran a photo of Babashoff above a caption the read “Loser” and the American women were considered failures after coming away from the 1976 Games with just seven medals – and only one of them gold.  And all for speaking the truth while stating the obvious.  Today, Babashoff would be praised for her courage and lauded as a model for fair play – much like Lilly King’s finger-wag of Russian drug cheat Yuliya Efimova at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Babashoff is not the only female swimmer who was cheated out of a gold medal in Montreal.  American teammates Camille Wright, Linda Jezek, Lauri Sterling and Wendy Boglioli were also robbed.  Ditto for Canadian backstroker Nancy Garapick, who would have claimed two golds and her teammate, Cheryl Gibson.  Sprinter Enith Brigitha of the Netherlands was also deprived of gold.  But Shirley was the only one with the guts to speak out.  If anyone had the right to protest, it was her because she was the one cheated out of fulfilling her lifelong Olympic dream.

The 1976 U.S. Women’s Olympic swim team was justified in objecting to what happened in Montreal.  They set nine American records only to see the East German doping machine beat them out.  While the men captured 27 of a possible 35 swimming medals in Montreal, the women garnered 11 fewer than they had won in Munich four years earlier and were treated harshly for it.  And although Stasi files show that many GDR athletes tested positive within their own laboratories, no East German athlete ever failed an official drug test.

These injustices occurred over four decades ago.  Since 1993, the IOC has known about the supervised systematic doping of East German athletes that went on from 1971 until 1990.  The women affected by this rampant cheating – now 60 or older – are all victims.  Isn’t it time the IOC takes measures to right these wrongs?  Strip the East German drug cheats of their medals and award them to their deserved winners while they’re all still alive and able to celebrate them with loved ones.

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  1. Thanks Jim for a DD on this travesty. I remember well the backlash against Shirley Babashoff for calling out the East Germans for what was actually obvious to anyone with half a brain. The Olympic Committee at that time(still) unfortunately, was nothing more than a sham that turned a blind eye due to politics and corruption. Years later, my children had Melissa Belote Ripley, a member of the 1972 and 1976 US woman’s teams as their swim coach. During a travel meet I had a long discussion with her about the East German woman and the physical changes that occurred. She recalled looking over before a backstroke race start and seeing her competitor had a 5 o’clock shadow and needed to shave. It is easy to vilify these woman as cheats but if what they say is true and they didn’t know what was being done to them, they are victims too. As bad as these Olympics were for the US team, they did save the best for last. The East Germans were heavy favorites in the last event, the 400 free relay. Ender led off for the East Germans and built a huge lead. In one of the greatest comebacks in Olympic swimming history, Jill Sterkel’s third leg gave the Americans the lead with Babashoff swimming the anchor leg to gold. It’s a video worth watching.

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