Walter Hagen, a.k.a. ‘The Father of Professional Golf’, once said, ‘No one remembers who came in second.’ Sadly, his comment applies perfectly well to Shirley Babashoff, who was, in her heyday, considered one of the greatest swimmers in US history, but remains largely unknown to a modern audience.
Once dubbed the ‘female Mark Spitz’, Babashoff won a total of eight Olympic medals. At the Munich Olympics in 1972, she won a team gold medal in the 4 x 100-metres freestyle relay and two individual silver medals, in the 100-metres freestyle and 200-metres freestyle. At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, she won another team gold medal in the 4 x 100-metres freestyle, a team silver medal in the 4 x 100-metres medley relay and three more individual silver medals, in the 200-metres freestyle, 400-metres freestyle and 800-metres freestyle.
To add insult to injury, in all her individual events in Montreal, Babashoff was beaten by a swimmer from East Germany, which, it was later revealed, was operating a state-sponsored doping program at the time. She did attempt to draw attention to the fact, but was pilloried by the media and portrayed as nothing more than a surly, dissatisfied loser. Even years later, when official documents revealed the extent of the doping program, the results were allowed to stand by the International Olympic Committee.
Reflecting on her misfortune, Babashoff said, ‘I worked so hard for what I didn’t get. I had a bad taste in my mouth for years.’ She added, ‘It would have changed my life dramatically if I had come back from Montreal with all the medals that I deserved. I would have had some endorsements. Money can change your life if you have nothing and get a bunch of endorsements.’