Ailene Voisin

40 years later, swimmer Shirley Babashoff wants her share of gold

Shirley Babashoff, center, 19-year-old queen of swimming in the U.S., dives off starting blocks in the women's 200 meter freestlyle event during the qualifying trials for the upcoming Montreal Olympics, at Blemont Plaza pool in Long Beach, Calif., June 17, 1976. Babashoff lowered her American record to two minutes, sixty-nine hundreths of a second to win the qualifying trials. Her time made her the third-fastest in women's swimming history.
Shirley Babashoff, center, 19-year-old queen of swimming in the U.S., dives off starting blocks in the women's 200 meter freestlyle event during the qualifying trials for the upcoming Montreal Olympics, at Blemont Plaza pool in Long Beach, Calif., June 17, 1976. Babashoff lowered her American record to two minutes, sixty-nine hundreths of a second to win the qualifying trials. Her time made her the third-fastest in women's swimming history. Associated Press file

Parents have instructed their youngsters for generations: You don’t pee in the pool. Well, guess what? Given the messy chill descending on the aquatics facility at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the times appear to be changing, presumably, hopefully, belatedly for the better.

In a span of two evenings – four decades after Shirley Babashoff was denounced for publicly confronting the issue – swimmer Lilly King leaned into the microphone and dressed down the International Olympic Committee for its archaic, ineffective anti-doping rules that allow athletes who flunk drug tests to compete in the Olympics.

Moments after King captured the 100-meter breaststroke final against Russian rival Yulia Efimova on Monday, the Evansville, Ind., native attacked the issue IOC officials have been ducking for decades: systemic doping within international sports.

“It’s incredible, winning the gold medal and knowing I did it clean,” King said.

The previous evening, she mocked Efimova’s finger-wagging gesture after the preliminaries and hinted at more to come. Efimova was suspended for steroid use in 2014 and is one of hundreds of Olympic hopefuls – most from Russia – who tested positive for a recently banned substance (meldonium) that has the IOC tied up in legal knots.

In a typically unwieldy pre-Olympic compromise, the World Anti-Doping Agency declared meldonium could remain in an athlete’s system for months after the Jan. 1 ban had been implemented, thereby offering repeated arguments for plausible deniability, countless court challenges and subtle corner cutting.

I was penalized for blurting out what everyone else saw. Do people honestly believe that, in a short time, a tiny country, with a wall built around it, suddenly produces all these wonderful swimmers?

Shirley Babashoff, on doping by the East German swimming program

If this sounds familiar, welcome to the increasingly global Olympics. The slickest dopers still manage a great escape, which is why King would disqualify any athlete who has ever tested positive for banned drugs regardless of nationality, including U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin.

Those cheers you hear for King, the ones gaining resonance far from Rio?

If not yet a roar, at least people appear to be listening. For Babashoff, the mini-revolt is four decades late.

While the Russians, Chinese and Americans rank right up there with accomplished cheaters in the modern era of amateur sports – let’s not forget Marion Jones’ defiant denial during the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at Sacramento State – Babashoff was gang-tackled by the East Germans at the 1976 Montreal Games.

They were bigger, stronger, faster, deeper-voiced. They were different, and with few exceptions unbeatable.

Babashoff, 19, initially was stunned, then outraged. As the Olympics approached, the Southern Californian was the world’s most dominant female swimmer, favored in the freestyle events and two relays. She was projected as the classic bookend to U.S. teammate Mark Spitz of Carmichael and a worthy heir to Debbie Meyer, another Carmichael media darling who won the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle races at the 1968 Games, the only woman to win all three events.

Forty-eight years after that achievement in Mexico City, Meyer suggests this is all wrong. The record book. The doping scandal. The IOC’s turn-the-cheek approach. The treatment of Babashoff.

“Shirley Babashoff should have the gold medals in the 200, 400 and 800,” Meyer insisted. “Instead, she took silver in all three, with East Germans (who later admitted doping) taking gold. That isn’t right. If the IOC ever got a backbone, they would take those medals away. They’ve done it in other sports. Why not in swimming?”

While Meyer returned to Sacramento to a hero’s welcome, Babashoff, who voiced her suspicions about a potential East German doping program that years later was verified by documents and interviews, was dumped like a box of soggy cereal. There was no Wheaties cover, no Sports Illustrated interviews, no flood of commercial endorsements.

“I was penalized for blurting out what everyone else saw,” Babashoff said during a phone interview Monday. “Do people honestly believe that, in a short time, a tiny country, with a wall built around it, suddenly produces all these wonderful swimmers? I was fed up and frustrated, and when I stand there and get the silver medals (four, including the 4x100 medley relay), they called me ‘Surly Shirley.’ They put me in the magazines and call me a loser. At 19? That’s what you do to a 19-year-old?”

Babashoff, who details her career and a turbulent, abusive childhood in her recently released memoir, “Making Waves,” has a long memory. Anger. Frustration. Distrust. It’s all there. Her relationship with her once-beloved sport remains complicated, even conflicted. After Montreal, she distanced herself from the industry for almost a decade while teaching swimming and raising a son. Later, she took her current job as a mail carrier. “I needed the benefits,” she explained with a laugh.

Shirley Babashoff should have the gold medals in the 200, 400 and 800.

Olympic champion swimmer Debbie Meyer

While driving to an appearance with close friend and former U.S. teammate John Naber, who won four gold medals in Montreal, the engaging, outspoken Babashoff peeled back the years and, not surprisingly, took aim at the IOC.

“That’s why I wrote the book,” Babashoff said. “It’s like a history lesson teaching kids about the Olympics. I’m sensing a movement backward. They’re letting cheaters swim in the Olympics. That’s not a step in the right direction. It’s still happening, and it’s not like they don’t know. It’s only been 40 years. It can go on for another 40 years. If they want to fix it, then start hitting the right buttons.”

In “Making Waves,” Babashoff refers to her former East German opponents as “tools” of their deposed government but does not advocate stripping them of their medals. Instead, she urges IOC president Thomas Bach to “slide everyone up” based on the order of their finish at Montreal, which would give her three individual golds to display alongside the medal that remains both precious and priceless: the gold from the United States’ shocking in-your-face victory in the 4x100 freestyle relay.

As for America’s next big star? If Meyer deemed Babashoff a deserving successor, both women anticipate a spectacular finish by the world-record-busting Katie Ledecky, who is on track to match Meyer’s freestyle sweep. Too big, too strong, too fast, too determined, too skilled. And perhaps, in the end, she will add her booming voice to the conversation.

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