By Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca
Back in the summer of 1976, I was caught up in the flurry of excitement that was the Summer Olympics that year, especially since it was taking place in my hometown of Montreal. I was fortunate enough to catch the opening ceremonies live at the Olympic Stadium, and was quite impressed to see all that pageantry right in front of me. As well, I watched a great deal of the coverage of the games on both CBC and ABC. And throughout those 16 days of glory, three names were always mentioned who constantly dominated the spotlight at the 76 Olympics: Nadia Comaneci, Bruce Jenner and Shirley Babashoff.
The first two are well known for obvious reasons (Nadia scored the very first “10” during the gymnastics competition and Jenner won the decathlon). As for Babashoff, she was the champion freestyle swimmer and world record holder who won three medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, and was touted to win a slew of individual gold medals in the pool four years later in Montreal (she even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 1976 Olympic Preview issue).
However, something happened during those individual swimming competitions at the Olympic Pool in Montreal. It was in the form of the women’s Olympic swimming team from East Germany. They somehow appeared to be more stronger and muscular in appearance than any of their other female swimming counterparts. And they virtually tore up the pool with every race they competed in, practically winning the lion’s share of the gold medals. They proved to be no match for Babashoff, who ended up winning four individual silver medals, and scored a personal victory when as a member of the U.S. women’s relay team, they beat the East Germans and won the gold medal in the 4X100 relay.
Although her medal haul in Montreal was quite impressive by any standards, something about the way the East German women swimmers appeared and their somewhat superhuman performance in the pool seemed to bother Babashoff a great deal. She was suspicious that these swimmers were winning their gold medals not through the merit of years and hours of hard work and practice like she did, but through constant doping using illegal performance enhancement drugs (which she learned about from a 1973 article by French journalist Jean-Pierre Lacour in Swimming World magazine, which stated that East German athletes were part of a state run program since the 1960s, and were given a “vaccine” to combat fatigue).
When Babashoff decided to go to the media and voice her opinion about why the East Germans really won so many swimming gold medals, she was accused of poor sportsmanship for picking on the poor, defenceless East Germans. And instead of being regarded as game changer who first shed light on the worldwide illegal doping of athletes, both amateur and professional, she was viewed as a bitter individual, and was given the nickname “Surly Shirley” by a rather unforgiving sports press corps.
And now more than 40 years later, Shirley Babashoff tells her story as a revered champion swimmer and a pioneering whistle blower when it comes to sports doping in her engaging memoir Making Waves.
Babashoff, who was born and raised in the L.A. suburb of Norwalk, began swimming competitively when she was eight years old. The impression you get is that she built her swimming career as a means of escaping a rather dysfunctional family upbringing with a constantly disapproving mother and a father who later was convicted of being a child molester. Through her swimming, Babashoff managed to give herself not only a sense of purpose and accomplishment, but also gave her a means to explore the country and the world through the multitude of swim meets she competed in. And she got to that champion level in a more honest manner, through a great deal of practice, long hours and hard work, not to mention plenty of motivation thanks to her longtime coaches Ralph “Flip” Darr and Mark Schubert.
What I enjoyed about the book is Babashoff’s tone, which is a combination of honesty, wide-eyed fascination, graciousness and dogged determination. You get a first-hand look at what the rigours a professional swimmer goes through in order to remain competitive, not to mention what an Olympic athlete goes through before, during and after their respective competitions (she got the chance to explore Montreal during her down time, and has a lot of high praise for the people and the city). As well, she gives a terrific, lap-by-lap account of that gold medal 4X100 relay race that will leave the reader breathless (all that is missing is the late Jim McKay offering the play-by-play description from the broadcast booth).
And Babashoff deserves a great deal of credit for her bravery to expose the world to the widespread doping of East German athletes that was approved by the state, nearly 20 years before the truth really came out and many athletes and administrators confessed to the doping and created a major international scandal as a result (and led to the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency). Not only was Babashoff proven right and somewhat vindicated, to her it was not enough for all of the shunning she had to endure throughout those 20 years (including her Olympic team coach) for exposing these allegations. In fact, she adamantly wants the International Olympic Committee to rectify the situation for those swimmers who lost out to the East Germans in 1976 by revising those results and award medals to those swimmers who would have finished in first, second or third place without the aid of doping, which is included towards the end of the book (so far, her proposal has fell upon deaf ears from the IOC).
Thanks to the excellent ghostwriting and researching skills of prolific author/pop culture historian Chris Epting, along with encouraging words from veteran Olympic broadcaster Donna de Varona, legendary 1972 Olympic swimming medalist Mark Spitz and Coach Schubert, Making Waves is a fascinating, complete testament to a true Olympian who showed extraordinary skills in the pool and raw courage outside it, and was years ahead of her time to realize that something was very wrong with the way athletes in certain countries were being prepared to compete on the world stage. After reading this book, you have to feel that Shirley Babashoff should not be treated as a bitter pariah, but as a true Olympic hero and role model for future generations of athletes who want to follow in her footsteps, and the footsteps of other Olympic champions.
(Santa Monica Press, $32.50)