“Surly Shirley” and the assault on women’s sport–then and now

by Worriedmom

The year is 1976, and the place is the Montreal Olympics. And it’s clear that something is wrong.

The East German women’s swim team is unstoppable. Inhuman, almost. Smashing every record, every competitor, sweeping every race – then jumping out of the pool like it wasn’t even challenging. Race after race, the American women – before this, favored to medal, if not win, most swimming events – are outclassed, demoralized, destroyed.

What could possibly be happening? Who are these women? Where did they come from and how are they dominating this Olympics so thoroughly? Today, of course, we know that the East German and other former USSR-bloc women athletes were part of massive, intensive, state-sponsored doping programs, that “processed” thousands of female athletes, pumping them full of anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and other performance enhancing drugs to turn them into athletic machines.

Kornelia EnderAfter the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent disclosure of state-sponsored doping programs, the story of the East German women’s drug scandal today is well-known. Sadly, many of these athletes, such as Kornelia Ender (pictured left) did not even know until much later that they were the victims of a doping machine. As Ines Geipel, an East German sprinter, stated, “We were a large experiment, a big chemical field test.” (Have we heard this somewhere before?)

Virtually all of the “doped” women went on to suffer serious health consequences stemming from steroid use, including chronic pain, kidney disease, heart attacks, infertility, and skeletal problems. Germany has now compensated some for their life-long health problems, and there have even been a few criminal convictions of “doping doctors.”

The drug program was not limited to swimming, nor East Germany, and several commentators have suggested that track and field records set during this period should be invalidated since it is unlikely they will ever be equaled.

Jarmila KIn 1983, Jarmila Kratochvilova, a “previously mediocre” 32-year-old Czech middle distance runner, set a world record in the 800-meter run in 1:53.28 seconds. That record has never been beaten in the 35 years since.

What is not as well-known today is that at the time, one particular woman, who was cheated out of as many as five gold medals – and who knew she was being cheated – was harshly criticized, ridiculed, and silenced when she dared to speak up about the unfairness she saw all around her.

Shirley Babashoff of the United States, then known as the “Queen of U.S. swimming” and  favored to exceed her stellar performance in the 1972 Olympics, arrived in Montreal in 1976. Her first clue that something was wrong was when she and the other U.S. women were changing in the locker room and heard men’s voices. Assuming the locker room was co-ed, they dressed quickly and looked around the corner, only to find the East German women’s swimming team.

Getting on the bus to return to the Village, Babashoff was asked by reporters for her opinion of the East German team. She replied, “Well, except for their deep voices and mustaches, I think they’ll probably do fine.”

The comment was the spark that lit the flame. (Source.)

As the 1976 Olympics went on, things got worse for the American women – and particularly for Shirley Babashoff. Beaten by East German women in all of the individual events in which she was entered (the 100, 200, 400 and 800-meter freestyle events), Babashoff won gold in only one event, the women’s 400-meter medley relay. Overall, the East German women won 32 out of a possible 38 Olympic women’s swimming gold medals.  Dubbed “Surly Shirley” by an unforgiving press, for continuing to speak out against the obvious cheating, Babashoff returned home from Montreal to find herself labeled a “loser” by none other than Sports Illustrated.

According to Mark Schubert, her coach at the time, “She was the only one that had the guts to speak out back then. If anybody had the right to speak out, it was her because she was the one that was cheated out of Olympic gold medals.” (Source.)

surly shirley olympics ceremonyDismissed as “shrill,” and “angry,” pictured is Shirley Babashoff, at left, during the Olympic medal award ceremony for the 400-meter freestyle, which she lost to Petra Thumer of East Germany. Thumer later admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs.

The 1976 Olympics marked the end of Babashoff’s swimming career. No fame and fortune like that enjoyed by Mark Spitz in the same era, no valuable endorsements, no cereal boxes, just finger-pointing, blame and ultimately, anonymity. Babashoff went on to a career as a postal carrier and life as a single mother to her son. It’s only recently that anyone has become interested in what Babashoff has to say, and in her recent book, Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program, Babashoff expresses hope that the International Olympic Committee will consider re-awarding the gold and other medals from the 1976 Games to their rightful recipients. As of press time, she’s still waiting.

The other women athletes around Shirley Babashoff learned her lesson well. Speak out and get thumped in the press. Be labeled a “bad sport” or a “sore loser.” Get told you’re imagining things, or that you’re not seeing what’s right in front of your own eyes. Most important of all, don’t take yourself or your performance seriously. Give up your athletic dreams if they say you should, and do it with a smile on your face, like a good girl.

Could the parallel be any closer to what is happening to the female athletes of today, who are expected to compete with natal males in sports as varied as track and field, marathon running, weight-lifting, mixed martial arts, women’s football, American football, dodgeball,cricket, volleyball, golf, basketball, cycling, softball, even roller derby? After all, as Vice News puts it,

fallon foxTake that, cry-baby.

Most articles discussing the entry of transgender women athletes into women’s sports do not feature the voices of the women affected. A classic example is “Transgender Weightlifter Might Have ‘Unfair Advantage’ – Expert”, published on the New Zealand news site News Hub.  Quoted in the article are a skeptical professor, a defensive New Zealand sporting official, an annoyed Australian official, and of course Hubbard, who was given a platform to say the following:

lauren hubbard

lauren hubbard 2

No “fundamental difference.”

Typical of the coverage afforded transgender athletes, however, we rarely if ever hear from the women beaten by Hubbard, who competed as a male in weightlifting for many years, and has now broken several women’s Masters weight-lifting records.  In fact, anybody with an objection to Hubbard’s stunning performances is dismissed as “prejudiced” and “jealous.”   Shades of Shirley Babashoff, who was ridiculed for losing to the East Germans when she was favored to win, and critiqued for not somehow prevailing anyway in an entirely unbalanced and unfair competition.

sore loser awardsIn many ways the failure of women athletes to object to transgendered men in their sports is not surprising.  There is a strong taboo in athletics against appearing to refuse to take personal responsibility for one’s sporting losses. No matter the circumstances, athletes are expected to take all of the blame when their performance does not measure up to standards.  Even in circumstances that are objectively unfair and unequal, a female athlete – faced with the pressure to be socially correct, the requirement that females be “nice” at all times, and worries about being judged as a griper and a sore loser – will hold her fire and not point out the obvious.

Women athletes are in an impossible bind: speak out and suffer Shirley’s fate, or continue to lose in lopsided and unfair competitions. Nothing will change until the athletes themselves, and not their surrogates, begin to protest, speak out, and refuse to participate in patently unfair competition. Until then, women’s sports will continue to be vulnerable to domination by transgender males.  How long will it be until potential women competitors decide it simply isn’t worth it? Why compete at all, if not on a level playing field?

Even the youngest competitors seem to sense that protesting will lead only to being punished, not heard. In Connecticut in 2017, Andraya Yearwood, a male teenager, who had undergone no medical treatment whatsoever, entered, and won, high school girls sprint races (on both the state and regional level).

andrea yearwoodAccording to Sarah Hall, the female athlete shown being beaten by Andraya Yearwood in this picture, “I can’t really say what I want to say, but there’s not much I can do about it” (Source). “It’s frustrating,” said Hall, who finished third in the 200. “But that’s just the way it is now.” (Source.)

That’s just the way it is now.  Shirley Babashoff could have told her that.