A Nation’s Pride: 1976 and State-Sponsored Doping

I must confess I haven’t had the opportunity to watch the apparently excellent “The Last Gold” documentary about the 1976 women’s US Olympic Team as they battled the overpowering but doped East German women. But having been a competitive swimmer back then, I am very familiar with the story and the emotions.  That the US women were cheated of their moments of glory is undisputed, and their incredible comeback to win that freestyle relay was the stuff of legends.

But it should be mentioned that those games were not just emotional for the US women. Every country in every sport had to face the doping juggernaut that was East Germany, and many, many athletes were robbed of their moments of glory.

However, there was one whole nation whose pride was particularly hurt, and that was Canada. It remains the only host nation in the history of the modern Olympics not to win a gold medal at their own Games. This was mentioned in the media constantly after the Olympics, and it often overshadowed the incredible results by so many athletes.

Canada finished the 1976 Olympics with 0 Gold, 5 Silver and 6 Bronze for a total of 11 medals.  Historically, that was a fantastic medal total, destroying the highest post-WW II total of 6 from the 1956 Olympics.  But as good as that was, it was lost in the news about the lack of a gold.

Let’s turn to the results in the pool now, and see what could have been. Back then swimming was seriously contested by very few nations.  In fact, in 1976 only 8 countries won swimming medals, and only 4 countries won 4 or more medals. It wasn’t at all like it is now.

1976 Olympics Swimming Medal Count .jpg

Clearly, the US absolutely owned the men’s events, while East Germany easily dominated the women’s events.  So let’s take out the East German swimmers and see what the results look like now.

1976 Olympics Swimming Medals without E Germany.jpg

 

Obviously, the US totals jumped higher, but Canada’s totals jumped by a huge amount as well.  In fact, Canada ended up with not just one gold, but 3. When you add in 3 non-swimming Silvers, and the host nation’s pride would have been more than salvaged as Canada would have finished with 3 Gold, 10 Silver, and 3 Bronze – the highest number of Olympic gold since 1928, and tied for Canada’s highest medal count ever. It would have been a cause for a nation to celebrate, not mourn.

Amazingly, Canada also would have finished 2nd in the swimming competition, with only the US ahead and the Soviet Union a close third. This swimming result for Canada would have been unprecedented, and would have been huge news in the swimming world at that time.

The East German men only won a single Bronze (men’s 100 Back), and so you’d expect that would little impact on the world.  However, eliminating that Bronze moved Puerto Rico’s Carlos Berrocal in, giving Puerto Rico its first (and only) swimming medal. It also would have doubled their 1976 Games medal count. Imagine how that Olympic medal would have galvanized Puerto Rico’s swimming community!

The women’s side is a different story. Taking out the 18 medals won by the East German women had a massive effect.  Here are the adjusted results for each event.

1976 Women Medallists.jpg

Not surprisingly, American Shirley Babashoff stands out clearly as the star of the show.  Including relays, her adjusted 5 Gold and 1 Bronze probably would have made her the star of the whole Olympics. She was an incredible swimmer at an incredibly wrong time for swimming.

But let’s look at the Canadian women.  Notice that Canada would have swept the women’s 100 Backstroke, making it Canada’s best Olympic event result ever.  Nancy Garapick would have been celebrated as a double gold medallist, while Cheryl Gibson with the Gold in the 400 IM and Bronzes in the 200 Fly and 100 Back would have been one of the best all around swimmers in the meet.

 

The East German state-sponsored doping program obviously affected many individuals and even countries, robbing them of their moments of glory. But even more importantly, the massive implications of state-sponsored doping programs rob the world of a chance to appreciate and celebrate the accomplishments of clean athletes as they push the boundaries of performance.   Let’s keep that in mind as we watch the performances in Rio.

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3 comments

  1. Rohan de Silva · · Reply

    Thanks for bringing back those memories with appropriate gravitas. At the time I was a swimmer but also a stupid kid, and my memory was more about the very manly appearance of that cheating East German team. I’m ashamed that my country decided to join the cheating rather than continue on the high road (lane?). Our society overall (there are of course notable exceptions) has lost our earlier ideal of “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” When I say that, or anything like that, my students look at me like I just switched to Japanese. I guess I may have, in a way. I really most appreciate the way you put 1976 Team Canada in the proper perspective. That year my swimming coach, Larry McFarlane, put is into Team Canada suits for our high school team uniform, and it only took me 40 years to get it.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Rohan. I really like how you teach ethics. People often pretend that ethics matter, until something big comes up. No matter what happened back then, the clean athletes involved learned lessons on how to cope, and how to face adversary. Life lessons that have probably helped them ever since. And in many ways, the East German athletes were victims just as much as they were cheaters. They had little choice in the matter, and their lives 30 years later have not been good. It just shows that the horrible potential damage when winning or losing is more important than how you play the game.

  2. […] I touched on the significant impact of East German doping on swimming at the 1976 Olympics (see here). It affected  Canada’s image of itself, robbed Shirley Babashoff of her deserved glory, and […]

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