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Setting the Records Straight

Illicit drug use by East German swimmers cheated their opponents—and, in a sense, all of us

What should a sport's guardians do when they learn that its orderly progression of records has been tainted by cheating? The IAAF, the organization that oversees track and field around the world, offered one answer to that question two years ago after Ben Johnson admitted under oath during a Canadian government inquiry that he had used anabolic steroids before the 1987 world championships. On the basis of that confession, the IAAF stripped Johnson not only of the gold medal he had won in the 100 in those championships but also of the world record he had set in doing so.

The question was raised again last week when 20 swim coaches from what used to be East Germany admitted giving steroids, which had been banned by FINA, their sport's governing body, to some of their world-class swimmers in the 1970s and '80s. East German sports officials showed no compunction whatsoever about exploiting young athletes for the greater good of promoting national glory.

It's hard not to feel sorry for those athletes who were manipulated so shamelessly. It's also hard not to feel sympathy for the generation of women athletes of other countries who had to swim in the shadow of their juiced-up East German counterparts. In 1976, Shirley Babashoff was all set to be the Mark Spitz of the Montreal Olympics. She was expected to be a contender for four individual gold medals and had set a world record in the 800-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials.

But the Olympics were phenomenally frustrating for Babashoff. Though she swam superbly, going under the previous world-record times in the 400 and 800 freestyles, she was beaten in both those races by Petra Thümer of East Germany, which won 11 of the 13 golds in women's swimming. Babashoff won no individual events, and it was not until the last women's event, the 4 X 100 free relay, that she finally won a gold medal, by anchoring the U.S. team to victory in world-record time.

Babashoff strongly suspected at the time that the East Germans had used steroids. So did almost everyone else in Montreal. Babashoff, however, gave voice to her suspicions and was pilloried in the press for doing so. She was Surly Shirley, the sorest of losers, and her public complaints were the sourest of grapes.

The East German coaches did not specify whether either Thümer or Babashoff's other principal nemesis in Montreal, Kornelia Ender, was among the swimmers who had been administered steroids. Nevertheless, Babashoff last week felt vindicated. "I don't expect them to send mc the medals," she said. "But I would like for them to say, 'We're going to change all the record books and make you the winner, because these people were on drugs.' That would make me feel good."

Unless it is proved that Thümer and/or Ender used steroids, FINA can't—and shouldn't—take action. Thümer has not commented on the statements, but Ender has. "We were fed by a special kitchen at the school, but we didn't know anything," she told The Times of London last week. Ender recalled having received injections, which her coaches said were to help her recuperate during training and after competition. She also remembers her astonishment when she put on 18 pounds of muscle without growing an inch taller.

One of the East German coaches, Volker Frischke, explained the decision to go public by saying, "We wanted to draw a final line under the affair." The best way to do that would be to come fully clean. If it is determined that Thümer and Ender trained with the aid of steroids, the record books should be amended. If the IOC should decide to replace Babashoff's silver medals with gold, so much the better.

The East German disclosures shake our faith in the possibility of creating level playing fields. We want to believe we can control the conditions in which records are set and medals won, as if sports events were lab experiments. This is especially true in those track events—the mile, the long jump, the 100-meter dash—in which the world records are the fundamental boundaries of human achievement. They help define us, not perhaps in the profound sense that Hamlet does, but nevertheless in an important and, in some ways, more elemental sense. Last August we learned that a man—Carl Lewis—could run 100 meters in 9.86. Thus, Man can do that. We also learned in August that with a running leap, a man—Mike Powell—could clear 29'4½" of the earth's surface. Thus, Man can do that. Similarly, in swimming, we learned that same month that a woman—Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary—could traverse 100 meters on her back in 1:00.31 Thus, Woman can do that. The presumption is that such feats are achieved in accordance with agreed-upon rules—for example, without reliance on prohibited drugs.

We feel betrayed when someone tampers with the yardsticks we use to define ourselves, and those guilty should be punished—belatedly if need be. It would be better yet, of course, if such transgressions could be prevented. Out-of-competition drug testing is one strong deterrent to cheating. Unfortunately, The Athletics Congress, which governs track and field in the U.S., announced last week that because of a shrinking budget, it was cutting its out-of-competition testing program almost in half. That's too bad, because the surest way to avoid the awful mess of having to rewrite the past is to be more vigilant in the present.