By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
At the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, Anthony Nesty charged to the wall in the 100m butterfly and became the first-ever black swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. The Suriname swimmer won by the smallest of margins -- .01 – over USA’s Matt Biondi. But that hundredth had infinite impact, as it was not only a historic, thrilling win, but a major accomplishment for black swimming. For the first time, a swimmer of African descent captured an Olympic gold swimming medal.
However, knowing everything we know now -- and no disrespect intended -- but Anthony Nesty is not the first-ever black swimmer to win Olympic gold.
Twelve years earlier, at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, a female swimmer from the Netherlands named Enith Brigitha won bronze in the 100 freestyle. She finished behind two East German swimmers, Kornelia Ender and Petra Priemer. At those same 1976 Olympic Games, Ender became the first woman to win four golds in a single Olympic Games.
Later, in the 1990s, after the fall of communism in East Germany, it was discovered that East German officials widely and systematically drugged over 10,000 of their own athletes, many of whom were swimmers, most notably, female. Ender herself had many of the common characteristics of other drugged East German athletes: noticeable weight gain, a deeper voice (she reportedly gained a quick 18 pounds of muscle). She admitted later to the doping, and according to this article, “she had never been informed about the regular injections given – athletes, she said, were given no choice.”
To date, no East German medals have been stripped or reissued after the widespread evidence of systematic doping surfaced. And, in the record books, Enith Brigitha is not the first-ever black Olympic gold medalist.
Like a tarnished record, her gold remains a darkened bronze.
“Everyone of those people have a right to claim they are Olympic gold medalists, if there is a confession or documentation, which, for a lot of the East Germans, has been the case,” Swimming World CEO Brent Rutemiller tells me. Rutemiller has written extensively over the years about the need to at least acknowledge that these athletes -- the ones who lost to East Germans during the time period of systematic doping -- were denied their true medals. “I walked away [after writing the articles] with a firm belief that the entire swimming community was fully supportive of righting this wrong through changing the record books and reissuing the rightful medals.”
The precedent of reissuing medals in the wake of doping scandals exists. Back in 2007, the IOC stripped Marion Jones of her five Olympic medals after she admitted to steroid use. However, in the case of swimming and East Germany, when Rutemiller approached the IOC asking to reconsider the East German cases, he was given a reply that “the IOC does not intend to review the allocation of medals and considers the results of the period that you are mentioning as final.”
In other words, Enith Brigitha remains – to this day -- a two-time Olympic bronze medalist. And in the history books, she is not credited as the first ever black swimmer to win Olympic gold.
While we never should have waited for 36 years after to acknowledge the wonderful career of Enith Brigitha, we will take the opportunity to celebrate Brigitha’s amazing accomplishments. Brigitha was born in the island of Curacao, in the Caribbean. When her parents divorced, she was relocated to the Netherlands. She went to her first Olympic Games in 1972 at the age of 17. Though she didn’t medal, she gained exposure and experience. After winning a gamut of individual national titles, and after winning a silver and bronze medal at the World Championships, Brigitha was awarded back-to-back “Dutch Sportswoman of the Year” in 1973 and 1974.
At the 1976 Olympic Games, Brigitha finally earned the first individual Olympic medals of her career, becoming the first black swimmer to medal. She finished 3rd in both the 100 and 200 freestyles. However, as mentioned earlier, Brigitha was only beaten by East German swimmers, with the one exception in the 200 freestyle, where USA’s Shirley Babashoff won silver.
Brigitha never officially won Olympic gold. She finally hung up her swimsuit a few years after the ’76 Olympics. But she found a way to give back to the swimming community, opening a swimming school in Curacao.
It’s hard to stomach that, despite the evidence, admissions, and documentation of systematic steroid use of the East Germans, no Olympic medals have been reissued. While so many swimmers have given up hope (the IOC cites a “8-year Rule” which, according to the Rutemiller article, “disallows any discussion of Olympic performances after eight years have passed,” though Rutemiller then argues that the IOC gave US gymnasts bronze medals 10 years after the Sydney Olympics), there is still an urgency and a fight to pursue the reissuing of these medals.
“‘Everyone should be compensated somewhat or just acknowledged,’” Shirley Babashoff told Rutemiller in this article. “‘Even our own Olympic Committee should step up and have an event where they can invite those who are still alive and recognize them, perhaps with a commemorative medal… or at least say, 'We know that this has been hard for you.'”
We can’t erase the past. We can’t change what happened. But we acknowledge our mistakes. The fact that we continue making mistakes by not -- in the words of Babashoff -- “acknowledging” the rightful medal winners from the 1976 Olympic Games (and swimmers like Enith Brigitha) is wrong.
The facts are these:
East German swimmers were systematically doped throughout the 1970s.
Enith Brigitha lost to two East German swimmers in the 1976 Olympic Games, one of which admitted to being injected with steroids, during a time of which the doping was widespread.
“Part of it is that the institutions don’t want to rewrite record books,” Rutemiller says. “They just don’t know where to stop it. They can’t contain it because it would spill into another era. They’d rather just live with it.”
When doing research for this article, I saw on one website that Enith Brigitha considers herself an Olympic champion. Imagine that. I take solace that she doesn’t need a record book to know the truth.