When History Is Rewritten
A sportswriter reflects on reporting on events whose results may be overturned by subsequent revelations of cheating. Wed., December 5, 2012.
By Amy Rosewater
Bonnie Ford, a senior writer for ESPN.com, remembers looking at the U.S. Figure Skating record book and seeing a name she found strange as the winner of the women's national championship title in 1994.
Amy Rosewater (firstname.lastname@example.org) spent eight years as a sports reporter for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and is an editor and writer for the U.S. Olympic Committee's Web site, www.teamusa.org. She teaches sports writing at Loyola University Maryland.
Rather than seeing names such as Michelle Kwan or Nancy Kerrigan, one word was listed instead: Vacant.
Rather, Vacant *.
The asterisk refers to a note saying that Tonya Harding had been stripped of her title because of her role in the attack on Kerrigan at the national championships that year. Kwan, the runner-up in Detroit, was not bumped up to first place. Ford, of course, knew Harding lost her title, but seeing a history book with a lack of a winner was a surprise
"I remember seeing that and thinking, 'Gee, that's weird,' " Ford says.
Several years after the infamous Tonya-Nancy skating scandal, Ford found herself in Paris covering cycling and, of course, Lance Armstrong. Armstrong won the famed Tour de France seven consecutive times, from 1999 to 2005, only to have those titles taken away after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency uncovered a massive doping scandal. Again, no subsequent winners were named.
And now the International Olympic Committee is seeking to reclaim Armstrong's bronze medal from the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
So often these days, it seems we as sports reporters are covering events only to see them wiped from the history books.
Ford, who covered six of Armstrong's non-victory victories, says she is not depressed when she looks back at the tarnished events she once wrote about, but rather views them as reminders that sometimes what we witness as sports journalists isn't quite what it seems.
"It doesn't feel like a blank slate to me," Ford says. "It just feels as if there's no longer a winner. With the Tour de France and Lance, it's an era that we as sportswriters should not forget. Every time we see a performance that seems like it is too good to be true, we should hold that little bit of doubt in our minds."
For sports reporters, that isn't always easy. We are taught in journalism school not to cheer in the press box, but it remains difficult not to get caught up in the excitement after witnessing a world record at the Olympic Games or a walk-off home run in the World Series, even if the athlete performing the heroics has arms the size of a bear.
Several years ago, I recall covering a game between the Cleveland Indians and the Oakland Athletics. I was standing next to Jose Canseco with a scrum of baseball writers and could not help but marvel at the size of his biceps. I had been in football locker rooms and covered Greco-Roman wrestlers, but I had never seen arms the size of Canseco's.
After the steroid scandal rocked Major League Baseball, my non-journalist friends would ask me, "Well, if you saw that, why didn't you report that?"
My response was (and still is), "What, exactly, should I have written about? 'The Cleveland Indians beat the Oakland A's today and, by the way, check out Jose Canseco's arm muscles?' "
Although the discovery of steroid use (especially by Canseco) was not a surprise to me or many of my colleagues, it certainly wasn't something I had proof of, and I wasn't about to risk a libel suit.
There are, however, ways we as sports reporters can put athletes and events into better context. Randy Harvey, a longtime reporter and editor who now is a columnist at the Houston Chronicle, covered the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games. He was a young sports reporter at the time, and so when he was in Montreal and saw the East German swimmers pummel the Americans --- the East Germans won 11 of 13 swimming events--he figured the East Germans simply were superior.
The Americans, led by Shirley Babashoff, voiced their concerns about the East German swimmers, some of whom spoke in deep voices and had facial hair, but Harvey and other reporters believed at the time that the Americans were just poor sports. Babashoff, who left those Games with one gold medal (the Americans won the final relay) and four silvers, was dubbed "Surly Shirley" for publicly accusing the East Germans of doping.
Looking back on that experience, Harvey notes that, at the time, many sports reporters did not cover World Championship events, so they did not have the opportunity to see how some of those swimmers had bulked up over the years. And even if they had, how could they have known the extent of the systematic doping that was going on in East Germany?
But Harvey says he laments that he was part of the "Surly Shirley" press corps and wishes he had had more inside knowledge of the sport leading up to those Games.
Wendy Boglioli swam on that gold-medal relay team with Babashoff. Boglioli also took home a bronze medal in the 100 fly, finishing behind two East Germans in Montreal.
"The American media was just doing their job," Boglioli says. "They saw the East Germans and thought they were the greatest thing since sliced bread. They told us we were poor sports, that we just didn't train as hard. We were all young kids. I mean, I was 21, but some of the others, like Jill Sterkel, were in their teens. It was brutal."
There was never a public apology. No medals were ever redistributed. And even today, the relay team that beat the East Germans for the gold still has not been invited into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
But Boglioli has received some acknowledgement of the truth--and that the U.S. women were telling it back in 1976.
"When the [Berlin Wall] came down in 1989 and it became clear what happened, I did get a phone call from Frank Litsky of the New York Times. He said, 'Wendy, you were right.' "
Boglioli agrees that "you can never go back" and rewrite history. Even if she were to receive a gold medal for the 100 fly now, she would not have the experience of standing on top of the medal stand alone, hearing the American national anthem and the cheers of thousands of fans.
Christine Brennan, a columnist for USA Today who has covered 15 Olympic Games, was in Seoul in 1988 when the Ben Johnson doping scandal erupted. Leading up to those Games, American track star Carl Lewis had made public accusations about some of his competitors using performance-enhancing drugs. Johnson won the race in Seoul, lowering his own world record in the 100 meters to 9.79 seconds, but had his medal stripped three days later. Lewis, who originally had finished second to Johnson, was awarded the gold.
Brennan says she has never looked back at the articles she wrote about the race, although, unlike the swimming scandal in 1976, reporters had raised questions about Johnson's performance.
"Before the Seoul Olympics, we reported and wrote what we knew at the time, including the accusations of Carl Lewis and others," Brennan says. "There's no way we could have known Ben Johnson was taking steroids until he tested positive. The bottom line is, we did our jobs and the truth emerged."
These days, sadly, we will never know the winner until the final drug test is administered. Right now, International Olympic Committee officials are investigating results of some events that took place eight years ago at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
The final results, it seems, never come in until the last drug test is taken.
"It doesn't depress me at all," Ford says of today's state of sport. "But I can tell you one thing: It's never boring."###