Niyo: Doping is an old, sad story at Olympics

August 5, 2016

Rio de Janeiro — Shirley Babashoff’s phone is ringing again. And this time, she’s answering. Because after decades of mostly silence, she’s ready to tell her story about the Olympic gold medals that were stolen, as well the injustice that was done and still isn’t finished.

She has written a book about her life — and her loss — and there’s a documentary film airing on the eve of the Rio Olympics about this entire saga that played out some 40 years ago, when Babashoff and her U.S. swim teammates fell victim to East Germany’s state-run doping machine at the 1976 Montreal Games. But this isn’t about self-promotion, really.

“No, I think the important thing is its still relevant,” Babashoff said recently, speaking by phone from her home in Fountain Valley, Calif. “It’s happening again.”

It is, in fact, as the same dark cloud hovers over these Olympics in Brazil following the revelations about another state-sponsored doping program — this time involving Russia. Reports of widespread systematic cheating at the 2014 Sochi Olympics turned the results in Sochi into a farce, after the fact. And given the delays and artful dodging of responsibility by the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), there’s little confidence the medal table won’t be overturned again in Rio.

“The message is clear,” IOC President Thomas Bach announced at his pre-Olympic press conference Thursday. “We want to keep the games free of cheaters, and there is nowhere cheaters can hide.”

Except, perhaps, when they’re hiding in plain sight, which certainly seems to be the case at the moment. That’s because WADA, funded in large part by the IOC, took years to look into allegations of the Russian doping scandal, and only did so when forced to after its chief investigator leaked the story to a German broadcaster, who produced a damning documentary.

Forced into action

Even then, the joint watchdogs acted more like lapdogs. And after a rushed investigation commissioned by WADA this summer confirmed the clandestine Russian operation – the report reads like a Cold War spy novel – the IOC ultimately balked. A late-July decision not to issue a blanket ban for the Russian delegation was widely panned, and by deferring responsibility to 28 individual sports federations – with almost no time to properly weigh individual cases -- it leaves more questions than answers.

The entire Russian track team was barred from competing in Rio. But late Thursday, Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov said about two-thirds of the full roster - 271 Russian athletes – had been approved, with final decisions on a remaining handful expected today.

“I can look in the eyes of these athletes,” Bach insisted Thursday, when asked what his message was to the rest of world’s Olympians in Rio, “because I have a clean conscience.”

As for a clean competition here — or anywhere, for that matter — the athletes are far less convinced.

And how could they be, given all the cloak-and-dagger nonsense and conflicted, compromised loyalties? Craig Reedie, the WADA chief, is also an IOC vice president, while Bach’s close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin have long raised eyebrows, and so on. The alliances are linked much like the Olympic rings themselves, and as Ann Arbor’s Nick Willis, a four-time Olympic miler for his native New Zealand put it, “It still seems very much that there’s other interests at play.”

But what about the quaint – or faint – notion of fair play?

“I think I can honestly say that, in my career, I don’t think I’ve ever competed in a clean sport,” said Michael Phelps, the most-decorated Olympic athlete in history who’ll carry the U.S. flag in tonight’s opening ceremony. “We’ve had this problem for how many Olympics now? It seems every time it’s something that comes up. It’s sad. That’s really what it is. It’s really sad that we can’t control it - that somebody who is in charge cannot control this.”

His longtime coach, Bob Bowman, who is leading the U.S. men’s team in Rio, echoed those sentiments.

“It’s very concerning to me that our governing bodies have dropped the ball in many ways on this,” he said. “The system is broken and it has to be fixed.”

But how? And when?

Truth is, Babashoff was saying that same thing 40 years ago, even if no one wanted to listen. After winning three medals at the age of 15 in her first Olympics in 1972, Babashoff was poised to match her friend Mark Spitz’s golden moment four years later. But of the five medals she won in Montreal, four were silver and in each case she was beaten by an East German. The lone triumph came as she anchored the U.S. freestyle relay to a win over East Germany — a race that’s still considered the greatest in women’s swimming history.

But that gold couldn’t erase the tarnished memory of Montreal for Babashoff, who retired months later and, after a brief post-Olympic career in the sport, spent most of her adult life as a postal worker. She’d been slammed by the media — at home and abroad — for speaking out in Montreal, dubbed “Surly Shirley” for voicing her suspicions about the husky-voiced, bulked-up East Germans.

“Everyone just kind of took it at face value,” she said, “because that’s the way sports were at that time.”

It wasn’t until after the Berlin Wall fell that the true extent of the East German program was revealed. But by then, the damage was done. And it’s still not repaired, as the IOC has thus far refused to go back in the record books and strip the East Germans of those medals.

“I don’t feel vindicated at all,” said Babashoff, now 59 and teaching swim lessons again. “Frustration? I’m over it. But I think it would be a really good step in the right direction to show people that ... even though you did this 40 years ago, you’re not gonna get away with it. I think that would be great. And then I’d feel better. I wouldn’t make more money. But it would be a victory, for sure, for a lot of women.”

Very few chances

It’s the same story for far too many Olympians — athletes who, unlike many of their peers in professional sports, have precious few opportunities to cash in on their talent.

Adam Nelson, a three-time U.S. Olympian in the shot put, estimates the silver medal he won at the 2004 Athens Olympics cost him close to $2.5 million. That’s because the Ukrainian gold medalist was later stripped of his Olympic medal in 2012 after re-tests of urine samples from Athens revealed anabolic steroid use. Nelson finally get his gold medal nine years after he’d figuratively won it, but by then his career was nearly over.

Two-time Olympian Desiree Linden, of Washington Township, says it is hard to put a price tag on her own losses. The 33-year-old boasts the fourth-fastest marathon time for an American woman in history, and seven top-10 performances in World Marathon Majors, including a runner-up finish in 2011 in Boston. But those leaderboards are now littered with runners who’ve been suspended for anti-doping offenses.

“And you start doing the math on that and the value that you can create for your personal brand, for (sponsors like) Brooks or PowerBar or Oakley, everybody loses,” said Linden, a medal contender here in Rio where she’ll compete on Aug. 14. “So I literally have been cheated, which sucks.”

So do the brief suspensions, and all the foot-dragging that precedes them — do-nothing often sold as due process.

“There are people that are working really hard the right way,” Linden said. “And it’s theft. They’re stealing from them. There’s no other profession in the world where if you get caught stealing on the job you’re like, ‘OK, come back in six months, you’ll have your position back.’ It’s just not reasonable to think it’s fair in athletics.”

Nor is it reasonable to think that it’s a problem that will ever get fixed, entirely, though at least now when athletes speak up, people are listening.

“I feel like we’re on the right track,” Babashoff said, “but the track has got a really slow train on it.”