Column: Time for IOC to make right a 40-year-old wrong

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) Shirley Babashoff has a bunch of silver medals.

They should be gold.

There's still time to correct this travesty.

The timing, in fact, has never been better.

''People are still doing steroids,'' Babashoff said Friday during an appearance at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. ''They need to know what the consequences are.''

With the sporting world embroiled in another massive doping scandal, this one involving claims that Russia ran a state-sanctioned system for juicing its athletes, USA Swimming has stirred up a 40-year-old hornet's nest by producing a documentary film, ''The Last Gold.''

The title refers to the American women pulling off a stunning upset of the doped-up East Germans in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay in the final swimming event at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Really, it's about a bunch 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, in the prime of her career. Instead, she settled for one silver after another - in the 200 freestyle, 400 free, 800 free, not to mention the 4x100 medley relay.

Each time, she was beaten by an East German.

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.

''Most people look at a silver medal as being something you won,'' said Babashoff, now 59. ''Unfortunately, in 1976, the silver medal got to be the losing (medal). You were the loser.''

Of course, after Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early `90s, all of Babashoff's suspicions, and then some, were confirmed. The East Germans 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's plenty of blame to go around, but it's a reminder that no one can let their guard down in the war on drugs. Not the anti-doping agencies, which don't always go far enough to root out the cheats. Not the governing bodies, which are often beholden to big-money sponsors. Not the media, which is often more cheerleader than watchdog.

Babashoff suspected something was up with the East Germans. Their female swimmers had never won an Olympic gold medal before 1976. Suddenly, they seemed to be winning them all - 11 of 13 at Montreal, to be exact. Even though the Americans - Babashoff, Jill Sterkel, Wendy Boglioli and the late Kim Peyton - finally claimed the only gold for the U.S. women in their final event, that did little to ease the sting of such a massive fraud.

''The East Germans were nothing at the Olympics,'' Babashoff recalled Friday, a tinge of anger still evident in her voice all these years later. ''Why didn't that send up a red flag? People going, `Wait a minute, what's going on here? This is so unusual. This tiny, little, depressed country now has the best women - and only women - swimmers in the whole world.' But no one thought anything of that.''

Despite a mountain of evidence that has since emerged, the East Germans were never stripped of their ill-gotten triumphs, having pulled off a scam that tarnished a lot more sports than swimming.

But Babashoff remains the cause celebre - a giant of the pool who, it turns out, never won an individual gold medal.

The International Olympic Committee doesn't have a mechanism in place to deal with such an epic, long-ago con job. There's a 10-year statute of limitations (or, in some older cases, just eight years) for punishing dopers - 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. Again, nothing in the books applies to the East Germans.

No reason that can't change.

''It's never the wrong time to do the right thing,'' Babashoff said.

Admittedly, it would get very messy if the IOC tried to sort out every case of a tainted East German who cheated a clean athlete. Impossible, really. And let's not be naive: some of those athletes they beat were surely doping, too.

But, at the very least, the IOC should recognize Babashoff and every other athlete who was beaten by an East German with a duplicate gold of their own.

The record book would get a lot more crowded, to be sure, with hundreds of events suddenly listing multiple champions.

That seems a small price to pay to all those who were wronged.

Babashoff, in particular.

''We're not getting any younger,'' she said. ''It would be nice to be a part of that and not have my grandchildren going up there to receive my medals for me and say, `We're getting these on behalf of my grandmother, who passed away 50 years ago.'''

The time to right this wrong is now.

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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