Some of Team USA’s most decorated Olympians were on hand Monday night as The Last Gold premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in Culver City, California. Three of the four main protagonists in the story set at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montréal, Shirley Babashoff, Wendy Boglioli and Jill Sterkel (Kim Peyton died in 1986 from a brain tumor), were reunited for the first time in 40 years at the screening. Other members and coaches of the 1976 U.S. Olympic Swim Team, including Casey Converse, Bruce Furniss, Brian Goodell, Jim Montrella, John Naber, and Mark Schubert, as well as younger Olympians John Moffett, Melanie Valerio Thomas and Jessica Hardy, were present to celebrate the release of the film. The Last Gold is in official competition at LAFF, one of only twelve documentary films chosen for this year’s festival. Members of the audience raved about the film as they left the theater.
The feature-length documentary tells the story of the women’s 1976 U.S. Olympic swim team, who after getting pummeled by the East German women throughout the first 13 swimming events in Montréal, came together, against all odds, to win the final gold in the 4×100 free relay.
Executive-produced by Chuck Wielgus and Mike Unger and directed by 15-time Emmy winner Brian T. Brown, the film is a visual page-turner; you can’t take your eyes away. Even though we know today how the story ends, the build-up to the last scene is extremely well done. The theater exploded into applause as each of the four members of the relay touched the wall, one after the other, giving the Americans the last gold in Montréal.
Subtitled “The greatest untold story in Olympic swimming history,” The Last Gold is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. It is the story of the systematic doping of teenage girls by the then-communist East Germany, whose athletes were used as political pawns during the height of the Cold War, and thus draws an eerie parallel to the alleged systematic state doping going on in Russia today.
At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the United States had dominated the swimming events. It was the year of Mark Spitz and his seven golds, but the American women were a force to be reckoned with, too; they won 8 of the 14 events in Munich. 15-year-old Shirley Babashoff won three medals for Team USA. She was already considered one of the top women swimmers in the world, having broken a world record in the 200m free (2:05.21) at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Chicago. Meanwhile, 13-year-old Kornelia Ender, who had been hand-picked to attend one of East Germany’s special sports schools when she was 10, made a name for herself by winning 3 silver medals.
A year later, at the first World Championships in Belgrade in the summer of 1973, all of the sudden the East German women were enormous. Marcia Moran, a member of the US team who journaled her experience, said, “These East Germans were huge girls. They looked like boys. We were all stunned.” East Germany began with an absolute blow-out in the 400 medley relay, winning by an unheard-of 9 seconds. In the individual events, Ender won 4 golds and Renata Vogel won 3. The East German women won a total of 10 out of 14 events and set 14 world records during the weeklong competition. “In one year they got so big; they were now beating us by 25 meters in a 200-meter race.”
When the Berlin Wall fell in October 1989, many of East Germany’s state secrets came to light. We now know that the exponential improvement the East German women made from 1972 to 1973 and beyond was due to doping. The state-run pharmaceutical company Jenapharm had created an anabolic steroid called Oral-Turinabol that East German coaches were told to give to all their athletes. Vogel, who is considered a traitor for speaking out against the abuse to which she was subjected, says in the film that the coach distributed the pills, telling them they were vitamins to take so they wouldn’t get sick. There were other pills, too, “but they didn’t tell us what that was.” She explains that she noticed her strength improving, her voice changing, and her face getting wider, but she had never heard of doping at that point and had no idea what was happening to her. Ender says her father, a top military officer, tried to take her out of the sports school but was unsuccessful.
Such was the stage that was set for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montréal. The once-dominant Americans came into the games with one of the best women’s teams in history, but they were no match for the East Germans. Throughout the eight days of swimming, while the women from Team USA broke 15 American Records, they only managed three individual medals. After 13 events of profound disappointment, including four in which the Americans did not even field a top-8 finalist, they summoned every last bit of courage they had and went after the East Germans in the 400 free relay. Kim Peyton led off and swam out of her mind, keeping within a half body length of world record-holder Ender, who had lowered the WR nine times already, taking it from 58-mid to 55.65. Wendy Boglioli followed, pulling nearly even with Petra Priemer. Jill Sterkel blew past Andrea Pollack, outsplitting her by over a second. Finally, Shirley Babashoff brought it home against Claudia Hempel, giving the USA their only gold medal and breaking both the American record and the World record with a combined 3:44.82. It was a huge upset and gave the American women some sense of vindication.
The Last Gold is a terrific piece of story-telling from Executive Producers Chuck Wielgus and Mike Unger, Producers Dan Klein and Mike Unger, and Director Brian Brown. It is not as simple as a good vs evil narrative. As Sterkel says in the film, “There has to be compassion for this group of women. It’s hard… you’ve stolen something… the right to compete.” But it is also clear that the athletes were unwitting pawns in a political game, and that the adults they trusted most were risking their long-term health and their futures for short-term glory.