Why Shirley Babashoff is a Hero and Barry Bonds is a Villain

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIFebruary 16, 2009

While it may seem strange to compare Shirley Babashoff, a female Olympic swimmer from 33 years ago, to Barry Bonds. If you think about it for a moment, it really isn’t. 

One spoke out against her competitors cheating and the other did not when he should have.

One had medals, records, and glory taken away from her because of her competitors’ cheating, while the other broke one of sports most sacred records by cheating his competitors (both past and present).

One was not seen as a hero by many when she competed, but now is seen as a hero by almost everyone; the other was seen as a hero by some when he broke the record, but now he is seen as a hero by very few.

Both were labeled as surly, one unjustly and the other well deserving.

In short, to me, Babashoff is least known and most deserving sports hero on the planet while Bonds is the least deserving sports hero in America and a villain.

And given Saturday’s revelation that Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003, I am throwing him under the bus too.

While it may seem that I am being harsh on Bonds, really, I am not.

When it became obvious that several baseball players were using steroids and gaining an illegal, unfair advantage, if Bonds and Rodriquez (easily the best players of their generations) had started speaking up and complaining about the cheating—the public pressure on commissioner Bud Selig would have been too great not to act.

Instead, they started using steroids, which made everything worse (including their health long-term) when they had a chance to save the integrity of baseball.

Granted, Selig, and the baseball owners should have acted earlier against steroid use, but I blame the players more because they were (are?) doing the actual cheating.  However, buses are big and there is room underneath my (our?) bus for Selig and the owners also.

For those of you under the age of 40, allow me to tell you about my (our?) hero, Babashoff. 

Reports from the East German Stasi files (revealed years later after the Berlin Wall came down in 1990), indicated that more than 10,000 athletes were subjected to systematic doping of DDR athletes from 1973 to 1989. 

Most notably was the East German women’s swim team, which dominated the 1976 Olympics by winning the Gold medals in 10 of 11 events, much to Babashoff’s detriment and dismay.

In the 1972 Olympics (when Mark Spitz won seven Gold Medals) when Babashoff was only 15, she won a relay Gold Medal and two individual Silver Medals.

At the 1973 World Championships she won two individual Silver Medals and two relay Silver Medals. And at the 1975 World Championships, she won two individual Gold Medals, an individual Silver Medal, and an individual Bronze Medal. 

When the 1976 Olympics came around, Babashoff, now peaking at the age of 19, was entered in six events and was expected to win several Gold Medals.  The public and the media were anticipating her to be the female Mark Spitz and the darling of the 1976 Olympics.  But, alas, sadly, it was not to be.

The systematic steroid use of the East German women over the last three years had propelled them to faster and faster world record times. It also made them look and sound like men to the point that Babashoff and her teammates thought that they were in a coed locker room. 

When the Olympics were over, Babashoff had won ZERO individual Gold Medals, one relay Gold Medal, and three individual Silver Medals, one relay Silver Medal, and a fifth place finish. As you probably figured out, each time she excruciatingly lost to an East German woman (four of them in the relay). 

If not for the cheating East German women (and their coaches and trainers), Babashoff would have won six Medals—five Gold Medals (three individual, two relay) and an individual Bronze Medal. She would have been the Super Star of the 1976 Olympics and would have been offered numerous endorsements.

And Babshoff did not take all of this with her head in the water. Instead, she spoke out about the East German women saying that they were cheating by taking growth hormones.

She was the first American to speak out against steroids and incredibly, was criticized by the media and others.

She was unfairly labeled as “Surly Shirley” instead of the hero that she was. I was 16 at the time and even then—I found it shockingly unfair, especially, because what she was saying was rather obvious.

Perhaps, at that time, I benefited from intelligent and proper guidance from my parents with whom I watched the Olympics each night. I don’t know, but why more people at the time could not figure out that it is not sour grapes when the only reason you lose is because the other person was cheating.

She was seen by some as an Ugly American Villain, when, in fact, she was a courageous young women cheated out of the glory that she worked so hard for and rightfully deserved.

Life isn’t always fair and the Shirley Babashoff is a good example of this. Since the East German’s doping revelations her reputation has been slowly restored for the better. Now, maybe, the IOC will give her and all the other athletes that were robbed their Gold Medals. 

To me, and hopefully, to you, she will always be a Gold Medal Hero. While, Bond and any other athletes who knowingly use steroids, will always be the real villains. 

Hopefully, in the future, Babashoff will be more of an inspiration to up and coming female swimming stars (such as my 13 year old niece Kaleigh) as the sports world continues to battle its biggest problem – cheating through the use of steroids. 

Maybe, just maybe, if more people had listened to and acted upon what Babashoff had rightfully complained about 33 years ago—instead of calling her a sore loser—steroids would be less of a problem today in the sports world. 

Unfortunately, sometimes it is not immediately obvious who are the true heroes and villains in life, but I am confident that we finally got this one right.


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