Irrefutable archival evidence proves that, during the 1970s, the communist East German government systematically administered anabolic steroids to its Olympic women’s swim team, which won 11 out of 13 possible gold medals in Montreal in 1976.
At the time, U.S. swimmer Shirley Babashoff called attention to the East Germans’ deep voices, bulging necks and other indicia of doping — only to be told to shush. American Olympic officials apologetically sent the East Germans flowers.
Thereafter, an unwritten rule discouraged athletes from calling out even obviously doped competitors, lest they be ostracized like “Surly Shirley.”
Now, 40 years later, an athletes’ revolt against institutionalized Olympic hypocrisy about doping has broken out at the Rio Games, as a new generation of swimmers refuses to keep quiet. It’s like Prague Spring, in Speedos.
American Lilly King, just 19 years old, started the uprising by literally wagging a finger at Yulia Efimova, one of 271 Russians whom the International Olympic Committee allowed to compete despite the recent exposure of Russia’s East German-style doping program, and despite Efimova’s own past record of violations. Sweden’s Jennie Johansson noted angrily that “someone that doesn’t deserve it” — Efimova — had edged her out for the last spot in an eight-person race final.
Then male swimmers Camille Lacourt of France and Mack Horton of Australia criticized China’s Sun Yang, another Rio swimming gold medalist with a doping suspension in his past: “He pisses purple,” Lacourt said.
What’s more, Australia’s top official in Rio backed Horton up when he refused Chinese demands for an apology. And, setting a new Olympic record for forthrightness, King said she wouldn’t mind a ban on the United States’ own top sprinters, Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin, for their past doping. (They were suspended, then reinstated in time for Rio.)
Trying to stem the candor epidemic, IOC spokesman Mark Adams babbled: “Clearly we want to encourage freedom of speech, but on the other hand, of course, the Olympics is and should be about respecting others and respecting the right of others to compete, and you know there is a line somewhere there — and each case is different — where people should be free to compete in tranquility, if you like, and not be aggressed by others. So, yes, we would encourage people to respect their fellow competitors.”
Too late. There’s no “respecting fellow competitors” without also respecting the governmental and other athletic organizations that dope them, or tolerate their doping, for the sake of national glory, financial gain — or both.
There’s no respecting them without surrendering what might be the best weapon against cheating, the one that Babashoff tried to employ, only to have it turned against her — shame.
What must really terrify the IOC is that uncontrolled honesty threatens the foundational myth of the Olympics: that they promote harmony among nations.
In retaliation for Horton’s remarks, China’s Global Times, a state-run newspaper, called Australia “a country on the fringes of civilization.”
Vladimir Putin’s press agency, Tass, produced an interview with Efimova in which she accused fellow swimmers of playing “politics.” “I always thought the Cold War was long in the past,” she reportedly said, echoing Kremlin talking points with remarkable fidelity. “Why start it again, by using sport?”
Like any revolt, the uprising in Rio might go too far, catching innocents as well as dopers in a web of suspicion and accusation, just as the Olympic authorities warn.
Still, the Olympic hierarchy could use a little destabilization — more than a little, actually. And if things do get out of hand, the IOC will only have itself to blame, because it has failed, all these long decades after the farce at Montreal, to ensure the integrity of its events.
The IOC’s acceptance of most of the team from Putin’s corrupt realm may have been the last straw for today’s athletes, but appeasing dictatorships is nothing new for the IOC.
East Germany’s secret police, too, imposed an oath of silence on doctors and coaches who drugged that glory-hungry state’s Olympians — they did not even tell the athletes what was in the pills they were given, though many were mere teenagers. For some, the health damage was severe, and longer lasting than the ephemeral glory they won their ephemeral state.
There is one place where East Germany’s victories still enjoy legitimacy. To this day, the IOC’s website, olympic.org , features the names and winning times of East Germany’s medalists — as if nothing had been learned in the past 40 years, and as if these bogus champions continue to embody the Olympic spirit. Come to think of it, maybe they do.