Olympic Gender Drama-The 1976 East German Swim Team

TransGriot Note: Another post in a series documenting the gender controversies that have occurred during the Olympic games.

During the 1976 Games in Montreal gender drama and cheating raised its head at the Olympics once again. 

The scene of this gender sports crime was Montreal’s Olympic Swim Center pool and the perpetrators were the DDR government.  Also involved without their knowledge at the time, the East German women’s swim team.

In the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the USA women swimmers claimed 17 total medals- eight gold medals, five silvers and four bronzes. Of their eight gold medals, six were claimed in world record times while the other two were Olympic records.  The USA women during those Munich Games had two events in which they finished 1-2 and swept the 200m butterfly.   They also won both relays in world record times.  Two of those USA silver medals were claimed by a then 15 year old Shirley Babashoff  

The DDR during those same Munich games won zero gold medals, four silvers, and one bronze during that Olympic swimming competition with no world records

One of the East Germans collecting silvers during those games was a then 13 year old Kornelia Ender. She was responsible for three of the four silver medals the DDR girls went back to their side of the Inner German border with.  

But in the four years between the Munich and Montreal Games the East Germans starting in 1973 came out of seemingly nowhere to make dramatic improvements in their times and the color of the medals they took back home to the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.

No thanks to State Plan 14.25, the DDR’s state sponsored doping program combined with their sports science rooted training methods and weightlifting regimens, they began to dominate the sport of women’s swimming and the East German national anthem became a very familiar tune at those competitions.

In the 1973 FINA championships the DDR took 10 out of the 14 golds in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and two years later matched that performance in Cali, Colombia.

Then came the Montreal Olympic Games and the DDR wundermadchen total domination of the pool.   They took home a grand total of 18 medals with 11 of them being golds.  Out of the 13 events contested in the women’s Olympic swim program in Montreal, only the 200m breaststroke (which was a Soviet sweep) and the 4×100 freestyle relay in which they claimed the silver eluded their grasp. 

The wundermadchen also set eight world records, equalled another one in the 100m butterfly, set three Olympic records and had five events in which DDR swimmers finished 1-2.  The East Germans also swept the medals in the 200m butterfly.

As for Kornelia Ender and Shirley Babashoff, their Olympic scripts were flipped.  The 17 year old Ender was the individual swimming star of the Montreal Games, taking home four gold medals and a silver.  She also beat Babashoff twice in their head to head individual races.  The four golds were all won in world record times.

19 year old Shirley Babashoff was aiming to be the femme version of 1972 Olympic swimming star Mark Spitz in these Montreal Games.  She was entered in five races, and in four of them except for the relay she was beaten by an East German swimming in world record time.  In addition to finishing with silver medals in her 100m and 200m freestyle races with Ender, she finished with silver medals in the 400m and 800m freestyle races won by Petra Thumer.

The lone gold for Babashoff was as a member of the 4×100 freestyle relay in which she and her American teammates upset the East Germans.  They had the added satisfaction of not only defending the gold they won in Munich and beating their Montreal tormentor Ender, but breaking the East Germans world record in the event by an astounding four seconds. 

That 1976 Olympic race is also considered the greatest ever in international women’s swimming.

But people were noting not only the muscular builds of Kornelia Ender and her East German wundermadchen teammates, so was the rest of the international swimming community. 

They noted the East Germans suspiciously dramatic improvements in times in the runup to Montreal   They also noted with some sarcasm that the voices of many of
the East German women were unusually deep, which is a telltale sign of the
effects of steroid use in women.

When a frustrated American coach repeated the observation during the Montreal Games, an East German coach replied, “We
came here to swim, not sing.”

Shirley Babashoff, the USA’s most decorated swimmer and a later inductee into the swimming hall of fame also noticed.  She and other frustrated American female swimmers loudly complained about what was to them obviously going on with the wundermadchen and threw some shade at their bitter East German rivals.

“To be frank, I don’t think we should look like men.”…

“I wouldn’t want to walk around the neighborhood looking like a guy.”

“That’s not the way God created us – to be like that (looking like DDR Swimmers)”…


Babashoff was bold enough to state the obvious back then and was derided by the world press covering the Games as ‘Surly Shirley’ and a sore loser for it.  

She would be vindicated by the fall of the Berlin Wall 14 years later and the opening of the once secret Stasi files confirming what Babashoff was bold enough to call out in 1976.  The DDR’s astounding success in the pool at the Montreal Games and in subsequent international swimming competitions through 1988 was steroid fueled. 

So IOC, I repeat the question I asked in 2008.  When are y’all going to take away the ill gotten Olympic medals the East Germans wonlike you swiftly have for any non-white Olympic athletes caught cheating?

That doping program not only robbed people like Babashoff, Canada’s Nancy Garapicki and countless others of medals they should have earned, it also had devastating consequences for the young East German women themselves.

Their developing female bodies were given steroid cocktails and their health was sacrificed in the name of winning medals and enhancing the international sporting prestige of the DDR for propaganda purposes.


It also left a lot of people who finished behind those doped up DDR female swimmers, including some of the East German swimmers themselves wondering what the results would have been if there had been a clean pool in Montreal?

Scroll to Top