Shirley Babashoff has a collection of silver medals.
They should be gold.
There is still time to correct this travesty.
The timing, in fact, has never been better.
“People are still doing steroids,” Babashoff said on Friday during an appearance at the US Olympic swimming trials. “They need to know what the consequences are.”
With the sporting world embroiled in another drugs scandal, this time involving claims Russia ran a state-sanctioned system for doping its athletes, USA Swimming has stirred up a 40-year-old hornets’ nest by producing a documentary film, The Last Gold.
The title refers to the US women pulling off a stunning upset of doped-up East Germany in the 4x100m freestyle relay in the final swimming event at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Really, it is about a group of athletes — and one in particular — being denied their just rewards by a now-defunct nation that set the bar lower than anyone before or since when it came to winning gold through better chemistry.
Babashoff should have been a star in Montreal. She was the greatest female swimmer in the world and, at 19 years old, in the prime of her career. Instead, she settled for one silver after another — in the 200m freestyle, 400m freestyle, 800m freestyle and the 4x100m medley relay.
Each time, she was beaten by an East Germany athlete.
Frustrated by the results and convinced her rivals were cheating, she blurted out her accusations to the world. The result was a nickname that still dogs her to this day — “Surly Shirley” — and led much of the media at the time to brand her a sore loser.
After Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, all of Babashoff’s suspicions were confirmed. East Germany doled out copious amounts of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, not always with the knowledge of their athletes.
The ramifications are still being felt today, not just in the tainted results, but with the massive health problems many of those gold medalists went on to suffer.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but it is a reminder that no one can let their guard down in the war on drugs: Not the anti-doping agencies, which do not always go far enough to root out the cheats; not the governing bodies, which are often beholden to big-money sponsors; and not the media, which is often more cheerleader than watchdog.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not have a mechanism in place to deal with such an epic, long-ago con job. There is a 10-year statute of limitations — or, in some older cases, just eight years — for punishing dopers, which is not nearly long enough to help Babashoff and so many others.
Also, sanctions can only be applied to those who test positive, miss or refuse a test, or show irregularities in their biological passport.
“It is never the wrong time to do the right thing,” Babashoff said.
It would get messy if the IOC tried to sort out every case of a tainted former East Germany athlete who cheated a clean athlete. Impossible, really, and some of the athletes they beat were surely doping, too.
However, at the very least, the IOC should recognize Babashoff and every other who was beaten by an East German athlete with a duplicate gold of their own.
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