EXCLUSIVE: Janet Evans on Fighting the Good Fight

By Tito Morales

LOS ANGELES, Calif., May 3. JANET Evans is on a mission.

The four-time Olympic gold medalist is convinced that competitive swimming is winning the war against performance-enhancing drugs, and she wants to keep it that way. She vows to do everything in her power to ensure that future generations of athletes can step up onto the blocks knowing that their playing field is level.

“I swam against the East Germans,” Evans says. “I have first-hand experience competing against athletes who have been doping. On a personal level, I know all about doping.”

So it came as no surprise, really, when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) recently appointed the distance legend as a member of its newly-formed Athlete Committee. Evans was the lone American, and only swimmer, to be named to the group. She and the other twelve members, which include former marathon great Rosa Mota of Portugal and retired hockey star Viacheslav Fetisov of the Soviet Union, were all chosen to help give WADA, established in 1999, more of an athlete¹s perspective into the pervasive problem of drug cheating.

“This Committee, through their experience and expertise, will assist us greatly in our fight against doping,” said Dick Pound, WADA’s President, at the time of the announcement. “I am confident that it will help us further develop our important task of educating athletes worldwide about the consequences of doping.

“I think that our ultimate goals should be to stop youngsters from wanting to do this to get ahead, and to really give credit where credit is due with the clean athletes,” Evans says.

Evans, who was elected to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame last May, feels strongly that WADA’s objective of giving more of a voice to athletes is merely the next logical stage of a process which has been evolving for decades.

“It’s the inaugural committee, so there are still a lot of things being worked out,” she says. “But I think it’s a very positive step by WADA and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Keeping It Out of the Shadows

For Evans, a tenaciously hard worker who achieved her success one grueling set after another, the proverbial glass is always half full – and never half empty.

She chooses to focus not on what hasn’t or isn’t being done on the doping prevention frontlines, but on what is being done, and what will be done. And maybe that’s the best way to look at things. Not all that long ago, the notion of creating an anti-doping group such as WADA, which operates independent of either the IOC or FINA, would have seemed preposterous. This latest twist – pulling recognizable athletes into the fold – would have seemed even more inconceivable.

For far too long, in fact, the subject of doping was never openly addressed. At the 1976 Olympics, U.S. star Shirley Babashoff was ridiculed for suggesting that there was something amiss in the performances of her primary opponents, the East Germans. Not only was Babashoff labeled a crybaby and a sore loser, she was lambasted by the international media who looked upon her insinuations as being the worst possible form of poor sportsmanship.

“She is such a legend,” says Evans of Babashoff. “I think she really got the bad end of the stick. She was the pioneer. She got a bum rap for it, but ultimately I think what she did opened a lot of people’s eyes.”

In the long run, Babashoff’s suspicions proved to be true. Still, though, by the time Evans herself burst upon the international scene in the latter part of the 1980s, drug doping continued to be one of those
issues which lingered about in the darkest corners of the natatorium. A small handful of journalists, led by ISHOF honoree Dr. Phillip Whitten, fought hard to illuminate those shadows. But the athletes were still forced to keep their doubts to themselves.

“When we swam against the East Germans, no one pointed fingers at them,” says Evans. “It just wasn¹t done.”

Still later, in 1996, Evans got a firsthand glimpse of just how volatile the doping issue was at the Atlanta Games. After Whitten laid out the case against her in Swimming World, athletes from around the world secretly questioned the meteoric rise of Ireland¹s Michelle Smith. For some reason, perhaps because of her international notoriety, the mainstream media singled out Evans to be Smith’s number one accuser.

“1996 was just an ugly year for all that,” Evans recalls. “We were coming off of what the Chinese did in 1994 in Australia [sic], and it was all just ripe for the picking. I never accused Michelle Smith of cheating, but I was really made the scapegoat.”

Ultimately, as was the case with the East Germans and the Chinese, the swimming community’s skepticism about Smith proved to be correct and she suffered one of the most ignominious falls from grace in Olympic Games history. But Evans, to this day, has found it difficult to shed the perception that she was nothing more than a troublemaker in the entire affair.

“I still feel the effects of what happened,” she says. “Every once in a while I’ll meet an Irish person and they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re the girl who spoke so badly about Michelle Smith.’ It’s truly like that for me and it’s been, what, nine years now?”

Evans is hopeful that future generations of swimmers won’t be subjected to such scorn.

“It’s a testament to the progress that’s been made that we¹re finally at the point where we can have committees that speak out about the issue. We can have an independent anti-doping agency.”

The BALCO Effect

Last summer, Australian superstars Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett were both taken to task by FINA for saying that not only were they convinced that they’d competed against unclean athletes in the past but that they’d likely have to do so again – maybe even in Athens.

Evans waded into the fray by defending the organization’s anti-doping efforts.

“FINA’s anti-doping policy does as much as it can to ensure that swimmers will be clean at the Games,” she said at the time. “I sincerely believe swimming is a clean sport.”

Her comments were viewed by at least one writer as bordering on naïve. And, perhaps, part of the reason why Evans’ statement elicited such a strong reaction was the fear that if the sport passes itself off as being 100 percent clean, then the powers-that-be might simply commend one another on a job well done and adopt an attitude of complacency instead of one of imperative hyper-vigilance and pro-activity.

Today, though, Evans steadfastly stands by her comments.

“I don’t think that the problem in swimming is as widespread as it is in other sports,” she insists. “I truly believe that, and I defend the statement I made last summer.”

Evans, who closely monitored the recent Congressional hearings, is heartened by all the revelations of late about Major League Baseball. She’s convinced that all the attention being paid to the steroid issue there can only mean good things to all sports, including competitive swimming.

“I think this BALCO thing has really broken it open,” she says. “It’s a battle, but I think having all these things happening are really helping our cause.”

It’s no coincidence, Evans feels, that those who wish to reform the professional sports inevitably point to WADA’s success with regulating the IOC as an example of an anti-drug program which can be, and is, effective.

“All the articles I¹ve read always refer to WADA,” she explains. “They all write about looking at what the IOC has done and what it’s continuing to do, and how that’s what’s needed in all the other sports.”

An Ugly Climate

As for her own records, many of which have stood the test of time for decades despite the onslaught of remarkable technical innovation, Evans maintains that she will be among the first to applaud when they fall – provided they are beaten honestly.

“I like my world records, and it’s fun having them, but if they get broken by a clean athlete I¹ll be the happiest person out there,” she says. “If they get broken by a dirty athlete, though, I’m going to have some trouble with it”

Not surprisingly, Evans’ golden triangle of performances in the distance freestyle events (4:03.85 in the 400 meters, 8:16.22 in the 800, and 15:52.10 in the 1500) were so far ahead of their time, that she, herself,
was the subject of accusations during her career – and, ironically, sometimes still is.

“My favorite one was that because my dad is a veterinarian I was receiving veterinary products,” she muses. “Me and all of my 99 pounds. That was ridiculous. It’s laughable.”

Because the subject of doping has become front-page news, many who know absolutely nothing about swimming or sport in general have felt compelled to comment on all the never-ending developments. Just recently, for instance, a writer penned an editorial attacking Evans for opting to wear a paper suit back in 1988 which, at the time, was considered state of the art.

“She was implying that that was just as much cheating as what the East Germans were doing!” says Evans. “You¹ve got to be kidding me… But you’re always going to get people that don¹t like you.”

Unfortunately, though, this has become the climate in which we now live. Doubt and suspicion cloud every great athletic performance.

“It’s gotten to the point where any record that’s broken is questioned,” says Evans. “And for the athletes who are doing it fairly, and work their tails off every day, and are absolutely talented in every way, I think
that’s really, really sad.”

Fighting the Good Fight

Evans, though, is optimistic that the pendulum will soon swing back the other way. And she’s convinced that the new undertaking will help turn things around.

“My biggest deal now is that I love being a role model,” she explains. “I love going out and speaking at clinics for kids. With everything that’s going on now with steroids – with all the revelations in baseball, and now we’re moving on to football – I think we need to have positive role models out there with a platform on which to speak.”

The WADA Athlete Committee, she feels certain, will provide such a forum. Evans says that her years away from the sport have changed her perspective on competitive swimming. When she was in the prime of her career, she was as consumed by the sport as anyone.

“You feel as if it’s your entire world,” she says. “But I’m married now, and I’m thinking about starting a family. As someone who’s older now, you realize that winning a gold medal is great, but having a happy, healthy life is much more important than all that.”

And this is what she hopes to impress upon all the legions of youngsters who she comes into contact with.

“Obviously I’m very passionate about all this,” says Evans. “And the other members of the committee who I know are also very passionate about it. I think that when you bring a bunch of passionate people together, good results will happen.”