The Great Race

It has been called the greatest untold story of the Olympic Games. It’s a true

tale of athletics as Cold War proxy battle, systematic steroid doping and an

improbable comeback.

After decades of dominance stretching back to the 1920’s, the USA women’s

Olympic swim team entered the 1976 Games in Montreal as underdogs. The

overnight ascendance of the female swimmers from the nation of East Germany had

set the world’s most successful swimming nation back on its heels. What no one in

America or the world could imagine at the time was that East German officials

considered their athletes “sport soldiers”, pitting the communist regime against the

west on the battlefield of international sport.

And it would not be revealed until decades later that East Germany, a nation

obsessed with gaining Olympic glory for “the State”, had implemented a systematic

program of steroid doping its international athletes. The results of the doping in

Montreal were stunning. East Germany, a nation that had previously never won an

Olympic swimming event, arrived at the final race in Montreal with 11 gold medals.

Munich to Montreal is a deeper look at one of the most revolutionary and

tumultuous periods in Olympic Swimming history. The interval between the ’72

Munich Games and the ’76 Montreal Games saw the introduction of the first

“technical” swimsuits for women and the overnight transformation of swim training

brought about by the introduction of simple, functional swim goggles. During this

period, America’s top women swimmers struggled to remain competitive with the

East Germans before the widespread implementation of Title IX provided them

scholarships, professional coaching and the opportunity to continue their careers in


With one event left on the swimming program in Montreal the USA remained

shut-out of the gold medals. Shirley Babashoff, America’s most prominent swimmer

of the 1970’s, would anchor the USA’s 4×100 freestyle relay. World Record holder

Kornelia Ender would lead the East German team. At the start of the “great race”,

with a week of disappointment behind them and Kornelia Ender swimming away

from the field, no one in the Montreal swim stadium gave the USA much of a chance

in the battle for the final untarnished gold medal.