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Thursday, July 26, 2012

US Olympics: Full Circle with the GDR

Jim Montgomery
It's with some sadness that I see the Olympics return to the TV this summer.

My sadness is related to what has happened to the United States as an Olympic team in terms of integrity.

That's right: integrity.

In the late 1960's and early 1970's I was a member of the Amateur Athletic Union - an organization created in 1888 to ensure standards and uniformity in sporting events.  I swam competitively and, in order to swim in meets sanctioned for state, national and Olympic access, you had to be a member.

At that time there were only two choices for highschool aged kids: highschool athletics or AAU.  If, as was my case, the highschool hand no pool you were stuck on the AAU track (you could not swim for another highschool).  The AAU required you to compete for only one team - you could not represent multiple teams so you had to choose carefully.

There were a number of nationally known "power house" AAU teams that produced national level athletes: Hinsdale, Illinois was one near where I lived.

Colleges at that time probably produced the most Olympic qualifiers primarily because they had the resources to run programs that included feeder and summer systems such as the one I was involved with.  Many colleges were top swimming teams in their own right (Indiana with James "Doc" Counselman) with producing some of the best athletes in the world.

I became involved in all of this around 1971 when I spent a few weeks as part of one of these feeder teams for the University of Wisonsin, Madison.  I spent several more summers in this program through 1973.

You basically lived in a college dorm - I was about 14 at the time - and trained with and like "the big boys."

The big boys were people like Jim Montgomery: 1972 and 1976 Olympic winner and first man to break 50 seconds in the 100m Freestyle.

This was heady stuff for a fourteen year old kid.

The program ran in the summer with the idea that you came off the college "circuit" - rested and entered the university "summer program" in order to qualify for "Nationals" where you'd move on to Olympic qualifications.  Swimming program from around the state could send kids to this program as well as a sort of "farm system."

The University coach, Jack Pettinger (still associated with Badger Aquatics at least as an email), was Montegomery's "home" coach (Montgomery did not attend the University of Wisconsin, Madison).  There were a number of foreign Olympians that lived in the same dorm with us (Australian Nigel Cluer was one).

We trained in the University pool in the afternoon and the big, 50m Olympic "Shorewood" pool in the morning.

The "Shorewood" out door 50m pool is still in use today much as it was forty years ago:

Typical work outs would include some six to eight thousand meters of swimming in the morning and started at seven AM (you had to ride your bike there).  The pool was eight or ten lanes and the "big boys" like Montgomery trained in the far right lanes.  Those such as myself were distributed with sub-coaches through the lanes to the left.

The big boys swam the farthest and the hardest under Pettinger.

After this you road your bicycle back and ate.  This involved a dozen eggs, a pound of sausage and a half a loaf of bread.

You biked to the "indoor" pool around one PM and swam another five or six thousand meters.  Often after lifting "home made" weights.

You then biked home and ate a large pizza and a gallon of milk.

Later on you had whatever you could find for dinner.

I imagine this was much the same for the rest of the athletes including the "big boys."  Certainly the Olympian's who stayed with us followed suit.

What was remarkable to me about all this at the time and still today is that all of this was done as amateurs.  It was an honor to be a regional or national level or Olympic-level athlete.  This involved pride.  You didn't cheat to win - you won because you worked harder than anyone else and made the best use of your talent.

Most of they people I knew either lived at home with parents or had jobs and worked for a living - not at swimming - but at some other job.  The Australian's, for example, I think were paid as "chaperon's" in the dorms.

You swore, when you signed your AAU card, that you would not take money for your sporting activities - no sponsorships, no payola, no under-the-table salary.  This was considered dirty.

And from what I could see this was largely true.

On the other hand, at this time US swimming held the GDR (East Germany) as the epitommy of "evil" and "the dark empire."  GDR women were, at the time, number one in the world in many events (World and Olympic competitions).

There was only one problem: they all looked like men because the GDR was big on hormone doping and they were always clever enough to ensure that the "girls" passed any "doping tests."

My father used to receive a magazine called "Swimming World" which chronicled much of this.  The GDR girls were certainly fast - but they were big and didn't look quite right.  (See this 1973 Sports Illustrated article.)  It was also rumored that top communist athlete's had lavish lifestyles paid for by the state.

There were similar suspicions about some of the USSR and other communist teams as well - but again more on the women's side.

So to sum all this up from my perspective in 1973 or so Olympic sports were governed by the AAU which required athletes to be amateurs.  There was, at least from my perspective in swimming, fair play and honor.  You got to be one of the "big boys" by working hard and not cheating you way to the top.

And let's compare this to today:  There are some 500 people in the London games just associated with administering drug tests: five hundred people.

No doubt hundreds involved in what kind of equipment is "legal" - full body suites, special materials, on and on.

Where is the honor in this?

And a large number of athlete's in all sport have some sort of "promotional deal."  Whether wearing certain clothes or being on the box of Wheaties.

You have controversy like the US Postal cycling team, the "augmented" disabled athlete's, and all the rest.

Today the game is only about one thing: the love of money - no honor, financial glory is the mark of success, winning at all costs.  Where's my medal - I've got a meeting with my agent after the games.

We, the US, are now and have become the GDR - the "evil empire" of the past.

I had a chance to train for the 1976 Olympics which I declined.  It was simply too much in terms of the physical and mental punishment required.  I dropped out of the sport by 1975 to pursue my interests in computers and software (retired at 17).

Do I miss it?  Not really.

I have competed in various running and triathlon events in the intervening forty or so years and done reasonably well (say the top 10% of finishers which for me has always been doing about as well as the fastest women).

But training at those levels is a lot of really hard work and takes up a lot of time - time you don't have if you have a career and a family.

But I will never forget what it meant to be part of that honor-based system.

(The US Congress changed the AAU model in 1978 - which in my book was the beginning of the end.)

So I'm sad today because I now live the GDR...

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