“She has those gold medals in her possession. She will always have gold and I will always have silver. It will always be that way for ever. In 1976, those people (East Germans) admitted that they cheated and the governing bodies cannot even take the medals away from them.”
The anti-Americanism that greeted Janet Evans in Atlanta when she questioned de Bruin’s achievements could now apply to Wagner in an environment where there is sympathy and anger in similar measure for de Bruin.
The Irish girl’s perceived loss, both personal and professional in her tumble from the most elevated of pedestals, has managed to both trigger compassion and disseminate vitriol. The “sour grapes from America” chorus in all its simplicity will undoubtedly survive. But Wagner is beyond name-calling and her belief until recently was simply that on this issue, Ireland was collectively putting the boot into American swimmers.
“Yes, I’m a bit soured from swimming,” she says. “I see a bleak future for young swimmers. I see the sport getting worse. I don’t want to see those young swimmers going through what I went through.
“I now have two silver medals in World Championships to people who then tested positive, Chinese swimmers, and I’ve a silver Olympic medal to someone who has been banned for four years. If I’m training seven or eight hours a day and for this to happen…it is discouraging. With my luck it could happen again.
“I don’t consider myself a champion. A lot of people say you really are gold. But I don’t feel in my heart that I’m champion because sitting with me is a silver medal. Yes, I guess I feel I’ve been dumped on. There’s nothing I can do.”
Wagner, unless she can trip the switch in her head and get back in the pool for Sydney, will never possess an Olympic gold medal. For the International Olympic Committee (IOC) retrospective sanctions against those caught cheating is a mine-field they would prefer to avoid. Decisions based on principle are not their strong point.
The disintegration of Wagner’s faith in sport will probably not horrify people as much as it should. Her impotence to resolve not one but three incidents at world level where the people who beat her were subsequently unmasked as cheats paints a bleak picture. Looking to governing bodies and their sterile rule books has proven unsatisfactory. A number of East German athletes, who were systematically doped up until as recently as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, have acknowledged their guilt and even petitioned for gold medals to be given to second-placed athletes. But the old men of the IOC have not listened.
Canadian Marianne Limpart, second to de Bruin in the 200m individual medley cannot call her self an Olympic champion, while many of the drug-induced throwing records set in the 1980’s are cast in stone. Who can explain why the women’s javelin in Barcelona in 1992 was won by German Silke Renk with a throw of 68.34 metres while in Seoul, four years previously, East Germany’s Petra Felke threw 74.68 metres.
The issue that is wasting the appetite of Wagner and athletes like her goes to the heart of not just swimming but sport. It is the unfashionable idea that honor, never mind health, is integral and assumed because cheating is so easy. “There would be satisfaction getting a medal,” says the swimmer. “That would mean a lot. My father was in the armed forces and he is a lawyer. One thing they have in the army is honor. My parents are angry that things like this could happen. Maybe sometime I can come to peace with it.”