The Greatest Olympic Story Never Told

Facing the height of Cold War doping, the U.S. women’s swim team found one triumphant moment at the 1976 Olympics.

Olympic swimmers
Photo by Rob Fortunato.

It has been called the greatest untold story of the Olympic Games. It’s a true tale of athletics as Cold War proxy battle, widespread doping and an improbable comeback. And its legacy ties to Colorado Springs.

The women’s 4×100 freestyle relay final at the 1976 Montreal Olympics is American swimming’s equivalent to hockey’s Miracle on Ice. And on the verge of this summer’s 40th anniversary of the Montreal Games, that story is finally coming to light in a documentary film titled The Last Gold and in my book Munich to Montreal: Women’s Olympic Swimming in a Tarnished Golden Era.

“The Last Gold tells the story of one of the most important pieces of Olympic swimming history,” says Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, which produced the film. “The 1976 Montreal Olympic Games will always be known as the games when the state-supported doping program of East Germany was at its height, and America’s top female swimmers felt the full force of that super-powered East German team. This film tells the story of what happened at the Montreal Games and what became of the athletes who competed. The lessons learned from doping are still relevant today.”

In 1976, East Germany’s overnight ascendancy to the top of international swimming was met with disbelief, but no one outside the Berlin Wall had an answer for it. The Montreal Olympics was to be the crowning glory of the East German doping program coded State-Planning Theme 14.25. It would take 20 years for the rest of the world to confirm that the East German athletes had been steroid-doped without their knowledge by their coaches and team doctors in the years leading up to the games.

In Montreal, the swimming results were stunning. Going into the final relay, East Germans had won all but one gold medal in the swimming competition. It was an unprecedented defeat for the Americans. Over the course of the competition, the United States, the most historically dominant swim team in Olympic history, had failed to win a single gold medal. With the final event remaining, America’s hope for gold rested on the four women swimming the 4×100 freestyle relay.

East Germany’s international athletes, regarded as “sport soldiers” were instructed to view the Olympics not simply as friendly competition between nations, but as a means of demonstrating East German supremacy against the West.

Kornelia Ender, the reigning world record holder, would lead-off the relay for East Germany. In a 2014 interview for The Last Gold, Ender describes the orders given to East German athletes: “We were told we had to beat the enemy, regardless of whether they were from America or West Germany.”

The American relay team faced enormous odds. Kim Peyton from David Douglas swim team in Portland, Oregon, was a seasoned veteran of international swimming. Wendy Boglioli, who’d grown up training in a lake in small-town Wisconsin, was the oldest woman on the U.S. roster at 21. Jill Sterkel, 15, brimming with confidence and competitive drive, would swim the third leg for the USA. And Shirley Babashoff, the most accomplished female American swimmer of the 1970s, would anchor the relay.

Babashoff’s legacy as Olympic champion in five events had been effectively stolen from her by the architects of the East German doping program. As the final relay unfolded, she stood on the blocks in her stars and stripes racing suit and signature black goggles. Babashoff took two deep breaths and set her sights on young Jill Sterkel who had just taken the lead for the USA. Babashoff’s anchor leg would hold off the East Germans and secure a narrow victory for gold. Finally, that great race is being widely recognized for its significance in Olympic history.

Yet, its relevance isn’t only for the history books.

As the summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro rapidly approach, it’s possible there could be no Russian track and field athletes. In November, the World Anti Doping Association (WADA) issued a scathing report detailing evidence of “state-sponsored” doping on an “industrial scale.” The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) suspended Russia and banned its athletes from all competition, including the 2016 games. WADA officials speculate that the illegal doping program has roots in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest advisors.

Colorado Springs has long been at the center of the war for clean sport and international anti-doping initiatives, thanks to the U.S. Anti-Doping Association (USADA) headquarters in town. Local attorney Rich Young also helped draft the charters for both WADA and USADA; he says with understandable hyperbole: “The reason I like my kids in sport is all the lessons that you learn: how to win with grace, how to lose with grace and learn from it, how to be a good teammate. If the lesson from sport is you need to cheat to win, then we shouldn’t have sport in schools. I should immediately switch my kids from sport to piano lessons.”

It remains to be seen if Russian athletics officials can satisfy the demands for reform by the IAAF in time for the Rio Games. Perhaps it’s a triumph that Russia’s widespread doping was discovered before it could repeat the stolen medals of 1976. What is clear is that even as we can celebrate a great unknown moment of triumph over foul play in Montreal, the world of sport cannot rest in its ongoing quest to ensure clean international competition.

—by Casey Converse

Read Our Interview With the Author

Munich to Montreal book cover
Photo by Rob Fortunato.

This spring, Casey Converse’s book Munich to Montreal: Women’s Olympic Swimming in a Tarnished Golden Era will reveal a new in-depth look at little known piece of Olympic history—a piece the now Air Force Academy swim coach lived as a member of the U.S. Olympic swim team at those 1976 Montreal Games. Read our interview with Converse about the making of the book.