FOUNTAIN VALLEY, Calif. — Shirley Babashoff gazed out at the Los Angeles Basin, tucked in a flat sheet of sunshine, and sighed. The same storm clouds that washed away her prospects of seven gold medals at the Montreal Olympics 40 years ago are gathering over the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, which begin this week, threatening a rush of new members into an elite club no one wants to join: athletes who were denied a gold medal, or any medal at all, by competitors who were doping.
Babashoff arrived at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 with a chance to match the performance in 1972 of Mark Spitz, whose seven golds sealed his status as an American icon and propelled him into a career as a product pitchman. Babashoff, a teammate of Spitz’s at those Munich Olympics, swam significantly faster four years later only to settle for four Olympic silver medals and one relay gold. Her career path as a high-profile endorser and motivational speaker was blockaded by broad-backed, husky-voiced East Germans later found to have been unwitting victims of a government-sponsored doping program.
Shamed by the news media and shunned by swimming officials for pointing out her competitors’ cartoonish musculature and suggesting they were cheating, Babashoff retreated into a self-imposed, decades-long exile. She raised her son, Adam, now 30, as a single mother well out of the spotlight while working as a postal carrier in Huntington Beach, Calif.
“I worked so hard for what I didn’t get,” Babashoff said, adding, “I had a bad taste in my mouth for years.”
Babashoff, 59, recently re-entered public life. She looked around the sports landscape, and what she saw was disturbingly familiar. Doping remains the scourge of sports, poisoning the concept of clean competition. The competition results that the world will see in Rio de Janeiro, just like what it saw in previous Olympics, will be history’s first draft.
Athletes will be caught doping — during the Games or afterward, when their urine samples are retested — and participants who were deprived of their positions on the podiums will hope for belated medals, if anything.
“It’s weird,” Babashoff said. “My story is still relevant. The thing is, it’s still going on. And it’s not going to go away.”
I.O.C. Ruling Hard to Swallow
In a broad re-examination of drug-testing results, officials have identified nearly 100 positive doping samples from the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012 London Games. Many of them were from medalists.
Delivering a gut punch to clean athletes, the International Olympic Committee recently decided not to bar Russia as a whole from participating in Rio despite a state-sponsored doping program that dated back years and cut across a wide swath of sports in both the Winter and Summer Games. Russia’s track and field team was barred by that sport’s international governing body in June, a move that withstood a court challenge. Russia’s weight lifting team was also barred.
The I.O.C., led by its president, Thomas Bach, who recently expressed “zero tolerance” for doping, acknowledged that all Russian athletes had been tainted by the country’s state-run doping system — resembling in its scope the program adopted by East Germany in the 1970s — but ruled that individuals from the country would be allowed to compete if they could convince their international sports federations of their innocence.
As the ruling made plain, the fight to clean up Olympic sports is a clumsy dance, with the drug takers leading and the watchdogs taking one step back for every two steps forward. The hope for a clean 2016 Summer Games has taken hit after hit, and the record books from the 2008 Beijing Games, the 2012 London Games and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are being rewritten as athletes’ urine samples are reanalyzed.
The American shot putter Adam Nelson received his gold medal from the 2004 Olympics in an exchange at a food court at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2013. He was feted in a formal ceremony at the recent United States trials, where he attempted, and failed, to qualify for his fourth Olympics.
The roll call of those cheated of their award podium moments because of competitors later found to have doped shows no signs of tailing off. It includes Reyhan Arabacioglu, a weight lifter from Turkey who received his bronze medal from the 2004 Summer Olympics eight years later after a Russian ahead of him was disqualified.
It includes Alysia Montano, an American who finished fifth in the 800 meters in London but who could be awarded the bronze, as the gold and bronze medalists have been implicated in the Russian doping scandal. And it includes Rodrigo Pessoa, a Brazilian equestrian show jumper who received a gold medal from the 2004 Olympics in Athens at a 2005 ceremony in Rio de Janeiro after the horse of the winner, Cian O’Connor of Ireland, tested positive for two antipsychotic drugs. Four years later, at the Beijing Games, Brazil was stripped of its 10th-place finish in the team event when Pessoa’s horse tested positive for a banned pain-relieving medication.
Differentiation Is Difficult
It can be challenging to differentiate the cheaters from the cheated. One of the Russians caught using banned substances when her urine sample from the London Games was retested was the shot putter Yevgeniya Kolodko, who is married to the Canadian shot putter Dylan Armstrong. He finished fourth at the 2008 Olympics but received the bronze medal in 2015 in a ceremony in his hometown, Kamloops, British Columbia, after the original third-place finisher received a lifetime ban because of multiple doping offenses.
The medal was nice, but it could not make up for the fact that he had lost out on endorsement money that would have totaled “over a million bucks, for sure,” he told Canadian reporters at the time.
In a telephone interview in May, Armstrong’s mother, Judy, described her son’s medal ceremony as “bittersweet, for sure.” She said: “For Dylan, it was so disheartening because he has been in track and field since he was 9 and has never had a summer off. He gave up his youth for track and field. I look now, I don’t know if it was worth it.”
Armstrong’s mother said her son would talk about being denied his moment of glory. A week later, the failed drug test of Armstrong’s wife, Kolodko, was made public, which made it awkward for him to talk about cheaters in sport. Kolodko’s failed test was doubly awkward because her 2012 Olympics bronze medal had been upgraded to silver after the gold medalist tested positive for an anabolic steroid.
In a statement, Armstrong said, “I have been consistently outspoken about my position on doping, which is zero tolerance.”
He also pledged his love, patience and support to Kolodko as “she navigates her future as an elite athlete.”
The headlines have made Babashoff feel as if it were 1976 once more. In Montreal, she was beaten in the 100- and 200-meter freestyles by the 17-year-old East German Kornelia Ender, who became the first woman to win four swimming golds in a single Olympics. In Babashoff’s signature events, the 400 and 800 freestyles, she was upset by Petra Thümer, a 15-year-old teammate of Ender’s. The East German women won 11 of 13 golds over all after having failed to win a single gold four years earlier in Munich.
The East Germans claimed at the time that they had developed a vaccine that staved off fatigue. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, documents were unearthed that revealed that huge doses of oral turinabol, an anabolic steroid derived from testosterone, had been administered to the men and women on the East German swim team, as part of a program overseen by the Ministry for State Security that treated aspiring Olympians, some of them not yet teenagers.
“People knew what was going on at the time, they just didn’t know what to do about it,” Babashoff said. “It just seems so weird in this day and age that they can’t right the wrongs. It just seems like such an easy fix.”
Past Wrongs Go Unaddressed
In contrast to athletes in other sports, Babashoff and other swimmers beaten by competitors who doped have not received the medals they earned. Many wrongs were perpetrated on them that have never been made right. In her memoir, “Making Waves,” published last month, Babashoff recalled being asked before the 1976 Olympics began about her East German rivals’ prospects.
“Well, except for their deep voices and mustaches, I think they’ll probably do fine,” she said. Her remarks were the beater that churned Cold War politics. Apologetic United States Olympic Committee officials sent the East German women flower arrangements, Babashoff wrote. In her book, Babashoff includes an open letter to Bach requesting that the female swimmers from the 1976 Olympics who finished behind the East Germans be awarded duplicate medals.
The conventional view of those in the Olympic movement is that the only way medals could be revoked, and reawarded, is if a drug-testing specimen provided by the athletes during an Olympic competition turned up positive or if the medal winner acknowledged having doped.
All the women on the 1976 United States Olympic swim team left Montreal feeling as if they had been cheated, but Jennifer Hooker Brinegar, a freestyler on the squad, said she felt the sorriest for Babashoff.
“She got totally ripped off,” Hooker Brinegar said. “I don’t know how she isn’t one of the most bitter women on earth.”
There was vinegar in Babashoff’s veins when she was collecting unemployment checks in the years after the Montreal Olympics. And later, when she was struggling to raise her only child as a single mother on a letter carrier’s salary. She wondered, what exactly did she do wrong?
“People criticized me for my poor sportsmanship,” Babashoff said. “What was I going to say to the East Germans? ‘Congratulations! You took the most steroids’?” After a sigh, she added: “People looked at me like I was the worst person in the world for saying the East German women looked like men. I said what I felt. Apparently, it didn’t go over very well.”
After Montreal, Babashoff faded into obscurity, her accomplishments receding so far into the background that Michael Phelps, who surpassed Spitz with eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, knew nothing of her history until recently. In the 1980s and 1990s, athletes on U.S.A. Swimming national teams, including Babashoff’s younger sister, Debbie, recalled receiving media training in which they were told about Babashoff in the context of how not to behave on the world’s stage.
At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the swimmer Allison Wagner finished second in the 400 individual medley to Michelle Smith, 26, of Ireland, whose winning time was 19.76 seconds faster than her 26th-place effort four years earlier at the Barcelona Olympics. Smith’s remarkable improvement at a relatively advanced age made her competitors suspicious.
A Deafening Silence
Over lunch in New York City in May, Wagner, now 39 and a San Francisco-based performance mentor, said she had left the pool deck, panting from exhaustion, after the 400 I.M. final and had been cut off by Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi, the defending champion, whom she had defeated by five-tenths of a second. Wagner said: “She came right up to me and said: ‘Congratulations. You’re the true winner. I just want you to know that.’ I had never talked to her before in my life, and she said that to me.”
But when Wagner met with the news media shortly thereafter, she refrained from denigrating Smith or questioning her performance.
“I didn’t say anything because people in our swimming federation used to say to me, ‘You don’t want to be Surly Shirley, do you?’” she said, referring to Babashoff.
Two years later, Smith provided an out-of-competition drug-testing sample that was contaminated with a high concentration of whiskey. She received a four-year ban from the international governing body of the sport for manipulating a drug test by spiking her urine sample with alcohol. Her swimming career was effectively over, but she was allowed to keep her four Olympic medals (three golds and a bronze).
“I always felt confident in my assessment of people I was racing against,” Wagner said, “and the people suspected of cheating, they looked different when they moved their muscles, their joints, their bodies.”
She added: “It was so obvious to me what was going on. And yet, the team coaches never said anything. It was like it was part of the sport’s culture not to do something.”
Forty years later, Babashoff is finally getting some recognition. On a June afternoon, she spoke about the past while being transported in a chauffeured car to the world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival of the documentary “The Last Gold.” The movie, produced by U.S.A. Swimming, tells the story of the triumphant women’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay, anchored by Babashoff, at the Montreal Olympics. Those in attendance at the premiere included the three surviving relay team members, Wendy Boglioli, Jill Sterkel and Babashoff (the fourth, Kim Peyton, died of a brain tumor in 1986 at 29).
It was the first time since the 1976 Olympics that the three women had been in the same place — mainly because Babashoff had resisted any reunion. Boglioli remembered writing to each of the women on the 1976 Olympic swim team in 1992, after the revelations about the state-sponsored doping in East Germany had become public, seeking support to petition the U.S.O.C. and the I.O.C. to revisit the 1976 results.
“I received this letter back from Shirley,” Boglioli said. “It was a two-page rant. She just felt cheated and robbed and heartbroken.”
Struggling to Heal
After the film, the crowd in the Culver City, Calif., theater applauded the relay team members — fittingly, for 40 seconds, one tick for every year they had spent feeling as if they had shamed the country by failing to win individual gold.
“That was pretty cool,” Babashoff said.
She was stopped by so many admirers on her way out, a festival organizer materialized to herd everybody toward the exit so the next film could start.
What went through her mind as she watched the footage of her races in Montreal?
“Maybe I’ll win this time,” Babashoff said with a rueful laugh.
A month later, the three relay team members reconvened at the United States Olympic swim trials in Omaha. One afternoon, Babashoff sat for a 45-minute autograph session in the carnival-like area adjacent to the competition arena. She had brought her relay gold from Montreal, which she placed around the necks of autograph seekers. Several people produced copies of Babashoff’s memoir for her to sign.
Thirty minutes into the session, the line was longer than it had been at the start. The moderator, aiming to accommodate everybody, first limited people to one autograph, then discouraged the taking of selfies with Babashoff, who engaged in conversation with each person she met.
“She’s so nice,” said a U.S.A. Swimming official assigned to escort Babashoff. “She’s a talker, too.”
Sterkel, 55, who would go on to compete in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, cried while watching the film — as did Phelps, he said, when he saw the film. The tears, Sterkel said, were for all the innocence lost — then and now.
“I think that I can safely say that since ’76, we haven’t experienced a clean Olympics, which is, I think, mortifying,” Sterkel said. “The medals shouldn’t go to the best cheater or the best system; it should go to the person who worked the hardest and earned it. Having said that, to me the tragedy in all this is when I do watch the Olympics or another event, having doubt in the back of my mind: Is this person really legit? I don’t know, and that’s an awful feeling.”