Finally! Team USA’s 1976 Women’s 400 Freestyle Relay Receives Call to the USOPC Hall of Fame

1976-olympic-womens-400-freestyle-relay

Finally! Team USA’s 1976 Women’s 400 Freestyle Relay Receives Call to the USOPC Hall

Nearly 50 years after their improbable triumph, the 1976 United States women’s 400-meter freestyle relay has been selected for induction into the United States Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame. The announcement was made on Monday, along with news that Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin will also be enshrined.

The women’s relay, consisting of Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli, Jill Sterkel and Shirley Babashoff, overcame massive odds and a doping-fueled East German opponent while winning the final event of the 1976 Games in Montreal. Their effort was historic at the time, and the triumph has grown in notoriety through the years. Simply, it was a special moment that should never be forgotten, and will now be rightfully honored with USOPC Hall of Fame recognition.

Here is a feature on what that 1976 relay pulled off at the Olympic Games in Montreal.

********************

It was a week filled with frustration. A week of agony and pain. A week of what-if questions. As the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal unfolded, little went the way of the United States women. It wasn’t that the Team USA roster was weak or underperforming, either. The problem was a glaring issue out of the control of those in Red, White and Blue.

Event after event, East Germany sent its women to the medals podium, often following a world-record performance. Those athletes may have put in significant work in the pool. They may have been talented. But they also benefited from another influence: The use of performance-enhancing drugs.

In what is considered one of the darkest hours in the sport’s history, the Montreal Games – at least on the women’s side – was a meet that matched skill vs. illicit science. Not surprising, science came out on top, as East Germany ruled the medals table and repeatedly leveled the United States with a tainted hammer.

But for one instance during that dreadful week, the United States had a chance to celebrate as the foursome of Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli, Jill Sterkel and Shirley Babashoff rose up in the 400-meter freestyle relay and pulled off a triumph that was impossible to foresee.

The domination of the East German women rivaled what the American men pulled off in Montreal. While Team USA won 12 of 13 gold medals in the men’s competition, the East German Wundermadchen captured 11 of 12 gold medals heading into the 400 freestyle relay. More, they posted five gold-silver finishes and swept the podium in the 200 butterfly.

But unlike the American squad, which is considered the greatest in the history, the East German success was the worst-kept secret in the sport. Their accomplishments came out of nowhere in the early 1970s, and were complemented by deep voices, acne and abnormal musculature – all indicators of steroid use.

To enhance its international sports presence, East Germany implemented a systematic-doping program that took effect around the 1973 season. Run at the government level and precise in nature, the program provided athletes with combinations of injections and pills that enabled them to build muscle mass and endure longer training sessions. The primary prescription in the program was Oral-Turinabol, an anabolic steroid that came in the form of a blue pill.

Before and after workouts, coaches or East German sports officials, including Dr. Lothar Kipke, would provide swimmers with a cup of the pills or give injections. The medication was presented as vitamins to help with the recovery process and was non-negotiable. Either take what was ordered, or another teenage upstart would be brought in as a replacement.

“Before training, the coach would come in with a big pill box and distributed pills,” said Renate Vogel, the 1973 world champion in the 100 and 200 breaststroke. “Each (swimmer) would hold out their hand and they told us it was so you didn’t catch a cold. They were vitamin pills. And there were also other pills among them, and the coach would separate them and tell you to take this one in the first week three times, always at some interval. But they never told us what it was. Doping was shoved to the forefront. Who knows what could have happened to your health?”

The systematic program that was orchestrated even featured a safety net in which athletes were tested by East German officials to detect whether any would return positives for performance-enhancing drugs. Leading into the 1976 Games, Barbara Krause was expected to excel for East Germany, having broken the world record in the 400 freestyle on the road to Montreal. But when the Games opened, Krause was conspicuously absent, said to be suffering from an undisclosed illness. However, it was believed her unknown sickness was a cover for the fact that Krause was given an incorrect dosage of steroids and would have tested positive at the Games.

As much as steroids use was understood to be at work, no East German women tested positive for a banned substance. That scenario allowed the administrators of the sport – at least publicly – to turn a blind eye and deny the presence of performance-enhancing drugs as a factor for East Germany’s dominance. In turn, East Germany felt it was untouchable and pushed its program further.

Shirley-Babashoff-Mission-V (1)

Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine

If silence was the predominant approach to East Germany’s supremacy, Babashoff wasn’t in the mood to take the politically correct path. A year before the Montreal Games, Babashoff was beaten at the World Championships by the East Germans on three occasions, once individually and twice in relay action. However, she also claimed victories in the 200 freestyle and 400 freestyle, so the notion her European foes were unbeatable had not been formulated.

But by the time the last event of the 1976 Olympics was set to begin, that narrative had changed. In the 200 freestyle, 400 freestyle and 800 freestyle, Babashoff was the silver medalist, beaten by East Germans in all three events. Meanwhile, the United States 400 medley relay of which she was a member also won silver, suffering a six-plus second setback to East Germany. The repeated losses and clear use of chemical means by the opposition was simply too much to take.

“She was the only one that had the guts to speak out back then,” said Mark Schubert, Babashoff’s coach. “If anybody had the right to speak out, it was her because she was the one that was cheated out of Olympic gold medals.”

When she spoke out, Babashoff did not hold back. She straight-forward accused the East Germans of using steroids and said she thought she was in a men’s locker room when she first heard the low voices of her competition, the pitch a side effect of steroid use. Because she was a runnerup in several events and the East Germans had not testified positive for performance-enhancing drug use, Babashoff was viewed as a sore loser.

The media eviscerated Babashoff for the accusations she lobbed against the East Germans, dubbing her “Surly Shirley.” It was a nickname that stung, particularly because Babashoff knew she was correct in her assessment, even if tests did not confirm her accuracy. In a way, Babashoff was not only unfairly beaten in the water, she was unfairly beaten out of the pool, too.

“It was horrendous for me,” Babashoff said. “We knew something was going on, but no one was knowledgeable about steroids in sports. All these swimmers were coming out of this little Communist country with a wall around it, so we couldn’t see what was going on. They were telling us, we have new swimsuits, we train at high altitude. Never once did they say we are trying out a steroid program, you know? It was so obvious to me. That’s why I said something. I felt cheated. You can see it when I’m on the podium getting my silver. I thought to myself, ‘Why is everyone turning their back on this huge thing that is happening?’ Then I came home from Montreal and had to live with what I had said.”

Kornelia Ender and Petra Thumer were the primary rivals of Babashoff, Ender having split with Babashoff in the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle at the 1975 World Championships, and Ender winning those events at the 1976 Olympics. In the 400 freestyle and 800 freestyle in Montreal, Thumer beat Babashoff twice, by 1.02 seconds combined.

Shirley Babashoff Kornelia Ender and Enith Brigitha 1973

Shirley Babashoff Kornelia Ender and Enith Brigitha 1973 – Photo Courtesy – NT/CLArchive

If there was a poster woman for East Germany’s systematic-doping program, it was Ender. In Montreal, the 17-year-old captured gold medals in the 100 freestyle, 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly, all in world-record time. She also contributed to East Germany’s gold-medal 400 medley relay and would have been the heavy favorite for gold in the 200 individual medley, if the event hadn’t been eliminated from the Olympic program for the 1976 and 1980 Games. In 1972, as a mere 13-year-old, Ender was the silver medalist in the event.

Between 1973 and 1976, Ender set 23 world records in six individual events. In the 100 freestyle, she broke the world record on 10 occasions, taking the mark from 58.25 to 55.65 in a span of three years. It took another 32 years for the world record in the event to drop by that margin, an indication of the potency of the steroids that fueled the East German machine.

“There was a discussion with my coach, my father and Dr. Kipke where (my father) said he heard doping was being done on young athletes,” Ender said during the documentary, The Last Gold, which focused on the 1976 women’s 400 freestyle relay. “My father said, ‘If you dope this child, I will take her immediately out of the sports school.’ But I don’t think my father had influence over any of the things that were done in the sports school. My father had to tolerate that, even though I was still a minor.”

The spirit of the United States women had been broken multiple times during their week in Montreal. While Babashoff was denied gold in three events, some of her teammates were denied places on the podium, their fourth- and fifth-place finishes hardly registering a reading on the sport’s Richter Scale. But when it was time for the meet to conclude with the 400 freestyle relay, a fire ignited in the ladies who would make one final chase for gold.

East Germany’s march to a 12th gold medal seemed like a formality, its margin of victory the only question. After all, it featured a stacked lineup, highlighted by Ender and Petra Priemer, the gold and silver medalists in the 100 freestyle. Also on the relay were Claudia Hempel, who was sixth in the 100 free, and Andrea Pollack, who was the Olympic champion in the 200 butterfly and the silver medalist in the 100 butterfly.

Somehow, though, the United States convinced itself that an upset was possible. Knowing the United States’ relay order would be Peyton, Boglioli, Sterkel and Babashoff, the athletes started to envision the race. They discussed split times, pictured perfect relay exchanges and saw themselves ahead of the East Germans.

“We got together before the relay and sat there and did this mental thing where you swim the race over and over, see where you are and the time you want to do,” Babashoff said. “We did the swim over and over in our head. This is how we’re going to win. We’re going to train our brains to make us win.”

There was a slight surprise when it came time for the relay to begin. Rather than use Ender on the anchor leg, East Germany opted to lead off with its biggest star, who raced opposite Peyton. Peyton led off in 56.95, a strong performance, and while Team USA found itself a body length behind after Ender touched in 55.79, the Americans were within striking distance.

On the second leg, Boglioli produced the fastest split of her career by two seconds, going 55.81 to Priemer’s 56.16 split. Although the United States still trailed, the anticipated larger deficit was negated. For Boglioli, who was the bronze medalist in the 100 butterfly earlier in the week, she wasn’t about to let the United States leave Canada without a gold medal.

“At the end of that week, as a team, we said, ‘This is not how this is going to end,’” Boglioli said.

A 15-year-old racing in her first of three Olympiads, Sterkel was given the chore of cutting into the East German lead further. The teenager accomplished her goal, and more, as she posted a split of 55.78, with Pollack going 56.99. Through 300 meters, the United States was in the lead by .40, with Babashoff facing off with Hempel on the anchor leg. Initially a dream, the potential of an American victory was real.

Dealing with a week of frustration and unfairness, Babashoff was not going to yield the lead. Producing a split of 56.28, against the 56.56 of Hempel, the United States beat East Germany by .68 and established a world record of 3:44.82, breaking the former mark by four seconds. A gold-medal shutout was averted, and a testing week ended on a positive note, thanks to one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history – then and now.

“What was so outstanding was that they won with their minds,” said Jack Nelson, the 1976 U.S. Olympic coach. “They didn’t worry about the East Germans. They were worried about America winning, and people went bonkers. They were truly great Americans and had no fear. No fear. A number of coaches would look away when they saw me because they, themselves, did not realize what these girls achieved. They did not realize these girls had been cheated to the limit.”

Overall, the United States women set 15 American records during the 1976 Games, several of those marks faster than the previous world record. But because of the East German dominance, the effort by Team USA has gone overlooked and underappreciated, even with the passing of time.

Attempts to have the International Olympic Committee either nullify the East German results or reallocate medals have failed, an unfortunate development considering the release of Stasi (secret police) documents after the fall of the Berlin Wall confirmed a systematic-doping program was at work. Although those who finished behind East Germans in Montreal, and at other points in the 1970s and 1980s, were victims, so were the East German athletes who were treated like lab rats and suffered medical conditions from their steroid intake.

“What happened to the East German women was horrible,” Sterkel said in The Last Gold. “I don’t want to see their medals taken away. I don’t want to see them suffer anymore than they have already suffered. But I’m thankful and grateful that I’m an American athlete and I wasn’t a victim who had to go through what they went through. The thing people have to wrap their head around is that there needs to be compassion for this group of (American women) who competed and did their best and were treated horribly by the press and by not recognizing what they did. It’s hard. You can’t go back. You have stolen something, the right to compete and see where you fall on an equal playing field is gone. And that’s what sports is all about.”

Subscribe
Notify of
avatar
12 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
avatar
wendy Boglioli
1 month ago

Thank you John and Swimming World for sharing our story!

avatar
Dave Chiappe
1 month ago
Reply to  wendy Boglioli

Still exciting to watch that relay today. And two of my favorite memories were meeting Shirley Babashoff and the relay at the Trials in ‘76 in Long Beach then running into Wendy and Jill at the Trials in ‘16 in Omaha. One of my favorite photos.

avatar
Matthew Shirley
1 month ago
Reply to  Dave Chiappe

One of the things I love about that race (in addition to, the obvious) is that Keith Jackson did the play by play. Go watch it on YouTube.

avatar
Steven G Skidmore
17 days ago
Reply to  wendy Boglioli

2 seconds faster than your lifetime best????
Hero..

avatar
Dana Abbott
13 days ago
Reply to  wendy Boglioli

It is a WONDERFUL story, and we look forward to welcoming you to an upcoming summer episode of our SwimTalk A2B podcast! We’ll probably get chills again hearing you share those memories, too! As Lawrence Welk used to say, “Wunnerful, wunnerful!” Kim is smiling. ❤️

avatar
Ulises Troyo
1 month ago

It’s inspiring to hear from US 1976 Champions again! They are my idols!

avatar
Tom Pani
1 month ago

Thanks for the enlightening story. Sad how Babashoff was treated for speaking up. That took real courage.

avatar
John Pepitone
1 month ago

The 1976 Woman’s 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay was the best swimming event at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Before the event, I thought that perhaps the US woman would have won three Gold Medals . Shirley Babashoff in the 400 and 800 meter freestyle along with the freestyle relay. By the time of the last event of the Woman’s swimming program, the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay, I almost lost hope, However, it was the most exciting Olympic event that I had ever seen . I am 65 years old and followed Olympic sports since I was a young man in the 1960s . It was quite indescribable to watch the US woman’s swim team beat the DDR woman in the final event of the program. I remember going bonkers after the US woman’s relay team victory,

avatar
Guimaraes Cayley
1 month ago

As always, a great piece. Congrats.

avatar
robert kravutske
19 days ago

watched it live on our black and white t v remember it like it was yesterday……..I was 16 years old…..the usc men of nabor, strachen, bottom, furniss put on quite a show but this relay was the best race of the olympics…….girls you still rock!!!!

avatar
Henry Thoman
18 days ago

“You have stolen something, the right to compete and see where you fall on an equal playing field is gone. And that’s what sports is all about.” Sterkel’s quote still resonates today.

avatar
Alene Garreton Taber Capeci
17 days ago

I swam with Jill and Shirley. They were amazing and gracious! I cheered them on at the Olympics via the TV. I am so thrilled they are getting the attention they deserve. Congratulations to the best! You are amazing women and role models.

12
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x