By Phillip Whitten
TUCSON, Jan. 31. FOR more than 28 years, swimmer Rick DeMont has been seeking vindication. In 1972, DeMont, then 16, was unceremoniously stripped of an Olympic gold medal after testing positive for a banned substance in his asthma medication. Now, U.S. Olympic Committee officials have announced they are "welcoming him back into the Olympic family and recognizing him as one of the most gifted athletes ever to represent the U.S. in international competition.
According to Mike Moran, spokesperson for the USOC, the United States Olympic Committee plans to recognize DeMont’s athletic and coaching accomplishments at a USOC Board of Director's meeting April 28-29, 2001 in San Jose, California.
DeMont, now 44 and an assistant swim coach at the University of Arizona, hopes the action will mark the first step on a road that eventually will lead to his being recognized as the legitimate 1972 Olympic champion in the 400 meter freestyle. "This is the most positive thing that’s come out of all my efforts over all these years," he told swiminfo.
"What I want is for the IOC to acknowledge its mistake and correct the historical record," he said. "There’s a medal out there with my name engraved on it, and I’d like to have it back."
DeMont won the 400-meter freestyle at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, in 4:00.26, beating Australian Brad Cooper by one-hundredth of a second. Two days later, his medal was taken away when traces of the banned substance ephedrine turned up in a routine post-race urine test.
An asthmatic, DeMont was first prescribed Marax, then a common medication for asthma, treatment, in 1971. He continued taking it unaware that it contained ephedrine, a drug banned by the IOC. Although the youngster duly disclosed his use of Marax on medical forms distributed to all Olympic athletes, U.S officials failed to relay this information to the proper authorities on the IOC's medical commission. Subsequently, no one on the U.S. staff ever admitted responsibility for the failure.
"It was their (U.S.O.C. medical officials’) responsibility to let me know there was an illegal substance in my prescription," DeMont said, "and either get it cleared or find an alternative. They failed to do it.
"I was only sixteen years old," he said. "I relied on those officials to tell me what I could take, but somehow I ended up paying the price. I guess it was easier to hang a 16-year-old kid out to dry than to tell the truth."
Rick DeMont thus became "the first American athlete since Jim Thorpe to have a gold medal taken away," he says. He also became the first swimmer to test positive for a banned substance.
Today, drug testing in sports is commonplace. But, 28 years ago, it was in its infancy. The 1972 Munich Olympics were the first Games with comprehensive drug testing. Michael Mandig, a Tucson lawyer and one of DeMont's advisors, allowed: "It may have been that the newness of the drug testing system caused mistakes to be made. Whatever the reason, we will just have to keep trying to change the IOC's mind about Rick."
Several days after he was stripped of the gold medal in the 400 meter freestyle, the ephedrine was out of DeMont’s system and he swam in the prelims of the 1500 meters—an event in which he held the world record. He qualified easily for the finals. Then, he recalls, "while we were in the Ready Room, five minutes before the race, Coach (Don) Gambril came in and told me the IOC would not let me swim. He was crying. I was devastated."
DeMont recovered from that devastation. The following summer he competed in swimming’s first World Championships, held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. It was a rematch of the 1972 Olympic race and, once again, DeMont defeated Cooper. In the process he set a world record of 3:58.18, becoming the first swimmer to crack the four-minute barrier in the 400 meter freestyle.
Yesterday, he commented: "At the time, I needed to prove something to myself, to my family, to the swimming world, that I was legitimately the best."
After his swimming career ended, DeMont went on to a successful coaching career, where he has mentored hundreds of swimmers from eight year-old novices through national champions. Extremely popular with his athletes, he is regarded by his peers as one of the nation’s most knowledgeable coaches.
DeMont is happy with his accomplishments and at peace with himself. Still, he wants the record set straight, his medal restored. "I don’t need any ceremonies, I don’t need any hoopla. I just want the IOC to repair the historical record."
The action by the USOC may be the first step toward achieving that dream.