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440px-Lance_Armstrong_2005 I don’t follow cycling closely, but I once praised Lance Armstrong, who I had read about in the media, to a friend who had been a journeymen professional in the sport in the late 1990s. My friend expressed some irritation, shrugged, and told me that everyone in the sport knew that Armstrong doped. He didn’t seem to want to talk about it in any depth, as he’d left the sport anyhow, and I didn’t pursue the conversation any further. Honestly I wasn’t sure at the time whether my friend was correct, or, whether he was jealous. I assumed the former, but I didn’t totally discount the latter. How could I truly know at the time?

This was in the early 2000s. Obviously if my friend, who was very far down the rankings of competitors, knew this, many more did so. The media almost certainly suspected, but Armstrong was a great story, and most people didn’t have definitive proof. I thought of this when reading this piece in The New York Times, Clean Athletes, and Olympic Glory Lost in the Doping Era:

Babashoff arrived at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 with a chance to match the performance in 1972 of Mark Spitz, whose seven golds sealed his status as an American icon and propelled him into a career as a product pitchman. Babashoff, a teammate of Spitz’s at those Munich Olympics, swam significantly faster four years later only to settle for four Olympic silver medals and one relay gold. Her career path as a high-profile endorser and motivational speaker was blockaded by broad-backed, husky-voiced East Germans later found to have been unwitting victims of a government-sponsored doping program.

Shamed by the news media and shunned by swimming officials for pointing out her competitors’ cartoonish musculature and suggesting they were cheating, Babashoff retreated into a self-imposed, decades-long exile. She raised her son, Adam, now 30, as a single mother well out of the spotlight while working as a postal carrier in Huntington Beach, Calif.

“People knew what was going on at the time, they just didn’t know what to do about it,” Babashoff said. “It just seems so weird in this day and age that they can’t right the wrongs. It just seems like such an easy fix.”

“Well, except for their deep voices and mustaches, I think they’ll probably do fine,” she said. Her remarks were the beater that churned Cold War politics. Apologetic United States Olympic Committee officials sent the East German women flower arrangements, Babashoff wrote. In her book, Babashoff includes an open letter to Bach requesting that the female swimmers from the 1976 Olympics who finished behind the East Germans be awarded duplicate medals.

At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the swimmer Allison Wagner finished second in the 400 individual medley to Michelle Smith, 26, of Ireland, whose winning time was 19.76 seconds faster than her 26th-place effort four years earlier at the Barcelona Olympics. Smith’s remarkable improvement at a relatively advanced age made her competitors suspicious.

…she had left the pool deck, panting from exhaustion, after the 400 I.M. final and had been cut off by Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi, the defending champion, whom she had defeated by five-tenths of a second. Wagner said: “She came right up to me and said: ‘Congratulations. You’re the true winner. I just want you to know that.’ I had never talked to her before in my life, and she said that to me.”

But when Wagner met with the news media shortly thereafter, she refrained from denigrating Smith or questioning her performance.

“I didn’t say anything because people in our swimming federation used to say to me, ‘You don’t want to be Surly Shirley, do you?’” she said, referring to Babashoff.

Depressing. But in sports where differentiation at the highest echelons can be split second, resulting in huge variation in monetary outcomes, I do wonder if there is a lot of subtle cheating which we can never even hope to detect.

• Category: Science • Tags: Sport 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"