As the Rio 2016 swimming programme got underway this weekend, the ripples were still spreading from the August 1 premiere airing at the Los Angeles Film Festival of The Last Gold.
This is a documentary on the victory earned by the United States women’s 4x100 metre freestyle team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, against the East German athletes who otherwise swept the board at those Games through what we now know were illegal means.
Forty years on, three of that victorious team - Shirley Babashoff, Wendy Bolioli and Jill Sterkel (the fourth member, Kim Peyton, died of cancer in 1986) - have been able to share and celebrate again a performance that produced a golden final flourish to a swimming programme which had seen an East German women’s team that was part of a state-sponsored doping programme win 11 of the 13 events.
It was an achievement that was matched four years later when Australia’s Michelle Ford became the only non-Eastern bloc female swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold against the East German women during that era.
As a doping controversy involving Russia has mired the preparations to the Games now underway, the effects of another organised doping regime are still being felt and reviewed. And no-one is likely to be feeling better about it than Babashoff.
Expected to take multiple golds in Montreal, she had to be content with three silvers in her individual events, and she gave vent to her feelings of frustration about what she saw as East German doping.
Her coach at the time, Mark Schubert, later commented: “She was the only one that had the guts to speak out back then. If anybody had the right to speak out, it was her because she was the one that was cheated out of Olympic gold medals.”
For this, she earned a very bad press. But Babashoff felt - rightly as things turned out - that there was something unfair about this startling transformation in the fortunes of East Germany’s women swimmers.
At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the United States had dominated the pool, with Mark Spitz making the top headlines with seven golds. The US women, meanwhile, won eight of the 14 events, with 15-year-old Babashoff taking silver in the 100 and 200m freestyle and sharing gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay.
East Germany won four silvers and a bronze, with 13-year-old Kornelia Ender taking second place in the 200m individual medley and being a part of the silver-winning 4x100 freestyle and medley relay teams.
One year on, at the World Championships in Belgrade, the performance - and appearance - of the German Democratic Republic’s female swimmers was transformed. Marcia Moran, a member of the US team, later wrote: “These East Germans were huge girls. They looked like boys. We were all stunned.”
The East German women won a total of 10 out of 14 events and set 14 world records during the competition. Moran added: “In one year they got so big; they were now beating us by 25 meters in a 200-metre race.”
In October 1973, an article in the Paris newspaper France-Soir by Jean Pierre LaCour summarised some of the suspicions being voiced about East Germany’s female swimmers.
“There is talk of a sort of ‘vaccine against fatigue’, LaCour wrote. “It consists of an injection of toxic substances which allows the body to combat fatigue more efficiently. It is believed that male hormones are given to the girls, who, in addition to an increase in vigour, develop a superiority complex with respect to other females from foreign countries.
“Another device is the use of a doping substance, not currently detectable, which virtually guarantees maximum performance with 98 per cent chance of success, as compared to classic training which is about 68 per cent successful. These accusations are terrible. The only way for East Germans to answer these accusations is to open their training camps. A simple denial will not be sufficient.”
The US women broke nine national records in Montreal - each time behind East German swimmers.
Babashoff was the most outspoken critic of the new ruling force in the pool, as a series of comments were made: “To be frank, I don’t think we should look like men. I wouldn’t want to walk around the neighbourhood looking like a guy. That’s not the way God created us - to be like that."
There were comments too about the low voices of the East German women. A GDR official responded: “We came here to swim, not to sing."
The press labelled the US women as “Ugly Americans”, and Babashoff herself earned the headline description “Surly Shirley". Schubert reflected: “She was abhorred by the media.”
When the Berlin Wall fell in October 1989, many of East Germany’s state secrets, kept in the files of the Stasi secret police, were uncovered. Ten years later a slew of extra detail emerged as many of the swimmers who had been coerced, sometimes unwittingly and sometimes not, into taking anabolic steroids attempted to sue those who had been responsible in a German court. Records indicate that more than 10,000 athletes across a range of sports were forcibly involved in the programme euphemistically referred to as State Plan 14.25. Many of the women in particular went on to experience psychological problems or to have children with birth defects.
The details of that final women’s swimming race in Montreal have been revivified through The Last Gold, which was produced by USA Swimming and also aired on NBC Sports on August 1.
Peyton led off and managed to keep within a half body length of Ender, who had lowered the world record nine times, taking it from mid-58sec to 55.65. Boglioli followed, closing up the gap against Petra Priemer. Sterkel then passed Andrea Pollack, swimming a leg that was nearly a second faster than her opponent before Babashoff secured victory by remaining ahead of Claudia Hempel to clock a world record of 3:44.82.
If the record books were to remove all the East German performances for that Olympics, Babashoff would have won five golds and a bronze.
When it was belatedly reported in January 2007 that 167 former East German athletes would be financially compensated through Germany’s National Olympic Committee for the systematic doping they experienced between 1973 and 1989, Babashoff’s first reaction was: “Only 167 athletes?”
An appeal was made to the International Swimming Federation, FINA, and to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at the time to rewrite the record books, strip the East Germans of their medals and award new medals to the rightful winners. That has not happened, and does not look remotely likely because of the eight-year statute of limitation on such cases.
When the three surviving members of that victorious US quartet gathered last month at the USA Swimming Olympic trials in Omaha, Babashoff commented: “I don’t know why they made the eight-year rule.”
Boglioli added: “The consequences for cheating are just not deep enough. The IOC needs to stand up and do the right thing. They need to champion the sport. If they want the sport to continue, get better and stay clean they need to do the right thing.”
That comment chimes in exactly with so many others made about the IOC’s recent decision not to employ a blanket ban on Russian competitors at the Rio Games in the light of revelations of organised doping which have taken place over a number of years in that country.
But the trio also agreed that the young women who had ruled the pool back then were also victims as they were effectively state-controlled.
“I am not in favour of taking away their medals. I do think the right thing to do is to recognise the feats of the women who rightfully received those medals," said Sterkel.
Boglioli added: “It was horrific what those [East German] women went through. They were victims. I look at the International Olympic Committee, who are all about the welfare, not only fair play, but protecting the athletes, and they failed to protect these women victims as well as the cheating aspect.
“When you read and you know the story, what they went through, it is child abuse. Here is an international committee who is supposed to take care of everyone and they failed."
The arguments will continue; but the circumstances of that 1976 victory only serve to make it more glorious.
For all the extraordinary efforts of that US relay team, however, only one female swimmer from outside the Eastern Bloc managed to earn an individual Olympic victory over an East German opponent during their doping years.
Michelle Ford’s triumph occurred four years after Montreal at the Moscow Olympics, where East Germany’s women maintained their dominance by taking 11 of the 13 golds, eight silvers and seven bronzes.
The 200m breaststroke was won by Russia’s Lina Kaciusyte. The 18-year-old Ford won the 800m freestyle in an Olympic record of 8min 28.90sec ahead of East Germany’s Ines Diers, who took silver in 8:32.55, and Heike Dahne, bronze medallist in 8:33.48.
Ford, who also set two world records in her career and became the first Australian woman to win individual Olympic medals in two distinct specialised strokes thanks to her bronze in the 1980 200m butterfly, told insidethegames: “Amazingly, I have just come to realise that I was the only non-Eastern bloc female swimmer ever to succeed over them and bring home Olympic gold.
“My other medals in Moscow 1980 were third in the 200 fly and fourth in the 400 metres freestyle with both placings behind the East German swimmers.
“At 13 I arrived in Montreal to swim the 200 freestyle and 200 fly. In both races I was placed next to the GDR record holders. This was my first international competition and I was not fully aware of everything that was going on but we all had heard rumours. There were obvious signs, but no proof.
“Four years later, in 1980, their programme was more developed. But, when I touched the wall in first place, I felt a mix of strong emotions of amazement, joy but also relief.
“That proved that through hard work and talent you can succeed and be better than doped athletes. Coaches called me tough. I had just turned 18 years old two days before my swim. After the race, I was on a cloud, but the true understanding of what I had accomplished came many years later and I just recently realised that I was the only individual female swimmer to win Olympic Gold in competition with the Eastern Bloc.”
Ford almost didn’t have the chance to earn her historic distinction. At the Australian Olympic trials she had finished second in the 200 and 400m freestyle behind Tracey Wickham, but the latter succumbed to strong pressure from the Australian Government, and in particular from Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, patron of the Australian Olympic Committee, to boycott the Moscow Games in protest at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Ford chose to attend the Games, and her triumph in the final individual event gave evidence that she had learned from tactical errors made earlier in the programme as she made a cautious start, lying seventh at the 100m mark, before taking over the lead from Diers after 200m and extending it to a victory margin of 3.65sec.
Ford, who also won Commonwealth gold in 1978 and 1982 in the 200m butterfly, reflected: “It has taken me over 30 years to appreciate what I have done as this era has been ‘pushed under the mat’, and is known by most as the ‘forgotten era’ - the one that didn’t count nor like talking about.
“I now feel it is time to recognise all those who participated in unfair conditions.
“There are many athletes who have held their head high but have suffered nonetheless. Maybe there is hope that one day these will be recognised.”