If things had gone the way everyone thought they would, Shirley Babashoff might be a household name.
She might be an Olympic sports commentator or the designer of her own swimsuit line or a highly decorated swimming coach. Or she might be doing exactly what she is doing now — leading a quiet life as a mail carrier on the beach in Southern California — though she would be doing it as the owner of five gold medals instead of one gold and four silvers.
Babashoff is a pioneer of the most painful kind: one of the first athletes to be cheated because the competition was using performance-enhancing drugs. Forty years before the current Russian doping scandal, Babashoff finished second to East German swimmers four times at the 1976 Olympics, swimmers who were later found to be pumped full of testosterone as part of the Communist country’s massive doping program.
“I honestly can’t believe that it’s still going on. It’s just crazy,” Babashoff, now 59, said in a phone interview. “Another state-sponsored cheating scandal? It’s amazing to me that people think they can get away with it, and it’s really sad for the athletes.”
No one knows this more than Babashoff, whose recently released memoir “Making Waves” details the pain she went through as a 19-year-old at the Montreal Olympics and asks the very logical question of why the IOC never redistributed the medals to competitors who would have won them if the East Germans hadn’t been cheating.
Babashoff was being heralded as the female Mark Spitz entering those Games, or in today’s parlance, a female Michael Phelps. Blonde, fresh-faced and a world record-holder in multiple freestyle events, Babashoff entered the games a media darling and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Olympic preview issue.
Swimming in all four of the glamor freestyle events and both relays, she could have become the only American woman to win six gold medals in one Olympics. Most thought she would come away with at least five. Instead, in one crushing defeat after another, she finished second four times and fifth once. Each time she won the silver, she was beaten by a comparatively unknown East German who shattered a world record by several seconds before popping out of the pool looking almost rested.
“It was horrendous for me,” Babashoff said. “We knew something was going on, but no one was knowledgeable about steroids in sports. All these swimmers were coming out of this little Communist country with a wall around it, so we couldn’t see what was going on . . . They were telling us, we have new swimsuits, we train at high altitude. Never once did they say we are trying out a steroid program, you know?”
The gold that Babashoff did win was as a member of the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay team. Babashoff swam anchor in the race that is widely considered one of the greatest upsets in swimming history and is featured in a new documentary, “The Last Gold,” which was on NBCSN on Monday.
Despite that win, Babashoff was widely considered a disappointment at the Games. Shamefully, she — not the East Germans — was made out to be the bad guy when she was brutally honest in multiple interviews with reporters and questioned the newly muscled physique of her competitors.
“It was so obvious to me. That’s why I said something in 1976,” Babashoff said. “At the time I felt cheated. You can see it when I’m on the podium getting my silver. I thought to myself, why is everyone turning their back on this huge thing that is happening? Then I came home from Montreal and had to live with what I had said.”
She was branded “Surly Shirley” and called a sore loser. Sports Illustrated, the same publication that had featured her on its cover, ran her photo with the word “loser” underneath it.
“She is one of the most done wrong by people in sports history,” said Dave Hollander, a sports historian and clinical assistant professor at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Sports, Management, Media and Business. “In the Olympics, such a great amount of wealth and financial gain goes to the gold medalist . . . She could have been this icon, the person who is constantly getting her contract renewed by NBC to talk about the Olympics. What a difference it would have made.”
Instead of getting her face on a box of Wheaties, Babashoff taught swimming for 10 years, had a son, raised him as a single mother and took the job with the post office, delivering mail. She said she has enjoyed her life as a mother and for a long time compartmentalized her swimming days so as not to become overly bitter.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the dirty secrets of the East German program were revealed, Babashoff felt a sliver of hope that she might one day see the gold medals she believes she should have earned.
That day has yet to happen. The IOC has refused to change the results from the 1972, ’76, ’80 or ’88 Olympics, even though government documents and the East German swimmers themselves have confirmed the doping program.
Initially, they told athletes that “there were too many variables involved” because so much time had passed. Babashoff said she has been told that there is an eight-year window for reviewing the medals, though the IOC had no trouble stripping Lance Armstrong of his bronze medal in 2013, 13 years after he won it.
“I think they will eventually do it, but I wish they would hurry up so we can stop talking about it,” she said. “It’s a travesty and it just didn’t happen to me. I don’t care what the rules are. Whether it be eight years ago or 40 years ago, you should not be allowed to cheat in the Olympics.”
No, you shouldn’t. And you shouldn’t be punished for speaking out.
The IOC doesn’t have a time machine. It can’t take Babashoff and other athletes back four decades and give them the golden moment they deserved.
They can, however, give her the gold. And they should.