Death threats, doping, denied gold: Michelle Ford’s Moscow 1980 Olympics battle still not over
Michelle Ford should have won three gold medals at the Moscow 1980 Olympics. The Australian swimmer wants justice for athletes cheated by the systematic doping of rivals, writes LACHLAN McKIRDY.
Michelle Ford was one of the most talented swimmers of her generation.
A two-time Olympian, the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow were her crowning moment.
She competed amid the largest boycott in the history of the Olympic movement with countries, led by the United States, opting not to send athletes to the Soviet Union after they invaded Afghanistan the year prior.
Despite receiving death threats and constant criticism, the teenager returned to Australia with a gold and a bronze medal, Australia’s only individual champion in those Games.
But she should have come home with a lot more – two additional gold medals in fact.
There’s only a small group of 21 Australians who have won three or more Olympic golds. Among that pantheon of greats are names like Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland, Ian Thorpe and more recently, Emma McKeon.
The reason Ford isn’t included in that group is because she competed against, and defeated, one of the most intricate athlete doping programs the Olympics had ever seen.
“Michelle Ford defended the Western world against an almighty drug cheating machine by winning the women’s 800m freestyle,” says Bill Sweetenham, Australia’s head swim coach in Moscow.
Systematic evidence later confirmed she competed against doping athletes but the medals from Moscow have never been reallocated.
And it’s why 42 years on, Ford, who should be considered one of Australia’s greatest-ever Olympians, is yet again lending her voice to the campaign to bring recognition to a generation of athletes who incorrectly believed they were competing on a level playing field.
As a child, Michelle Ford was told by her father of the significance of the Olympic Games: “This was the ultimate in sport and maybe one day you’ll make it.”
Like many Australians, she first experienced swimming at school carnivals, amplified by pools at family barbecues and beach expeditions. Further inspiration then came from watching the feats of Shane Gould at the Munich Games in 1972.
But it quickly became apparent just how talented Ford was.
By age 10, she was a national champion. By age 13, she was off to the Olympics, unimaginable in this day and age.
“Kids of our age had never even gone out of the state, we hadn’t even gone out of the city,” Ford remembers.
“So going to Montreal was incredible.”
After seven weeks, by herself, at a pre-departure camp in Perth, she eventually got her passport and took her seat on a special flight chartered by Qantas.
But immediately, she sensed that the Olympics were not what they were made out to be, instead a daunting prospect for a teenager competing on the world stage for the first time.
They had heard whispers about the East German athletes who had been breaking records left, right and centre. Seeing them in person for the first time was a completely different experience.
“Stepping off the plane and seeing the East German girls, which was the first time they were on show if I can say it like that, it was scary,” Ford recalls.
“They were huge. I raced in the same race as Kornelia Ender who was dubbed ‘The Queen of the Pool’. She was twice the size of me, twice.
“It wasn’t only in height, it was the bulk and the sheer physique of them. But they not only had the physique, they had the coaching staff. They had this whole team of entourage.
“We had two coaches and that was us.”
In the pool, the Australian team only came away with one medal, a bronze to Stephen Holland in the men’s 1500m freestyle. In all respects, it was a disappointing campaign, but a glance at the final tally showed the early signs of East German dominance.
They finished with 19 medals, 11 of them gold. Ender had three of her own in the 100m and 200m freestyle, as well as the 100m butterfly.
Four years earlier, the East German female swimmers had not won a single gold medal, nor had they held any world records.
“You’re sitting on the bus with them and they put their arm up and you see it and go, “Man, I’m against that?’,” Ford says, still aghast to this day.
“But overall, the Montreal experience, I wouldn’t have given it up for the world.”
And her performances were enough to attract the attention of some of the best coaches in the country.
“I watched Michelle and Tracey [Wickham] swim at the Montreal Olympics and I remember thinking, ‘Boy, this is the future of Australia right here in the pool’,” Sweetenham says.
The next four years became all about one goal for Ford. Having seen the mountain she had to climb at the Olympics up close, she put every inch of her fibre into becoming the best in the world.
“This is one girl who had attitude and determination as I’ve never seen before,” Sweetenham says.
The shock of Montreal quickly subsided into endless hours in the pool. Ford’s times were getting quicker and quicker and soon she was turning heads as a genuine medal prospect for the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
However, her preparation was constantly disrupted by the conjecture of whether the Australian athletes should attend the Games due to the Soviet Union’s involvement in Afghanistan.
“Even though we know it involves difficulty for athletes and are sympathetic to that, we strongly have the view that Australia should not send a team to the Moscow Olympics,” said then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.
Just weeks before they were set to depart, athletes still didn’t know if they would be competing in Russia.
“We were in the pool, out of the pool, in the pool. We didn’t know until four weeks before,” Ford says.
“We (The Australian Olympic Federation) voted four times. The government kept insisting we should go back to the drawing board and vote again.
“We were only 18, it was difficult to understand the mechanics of it.”
The Australian Government offered compensation for athletes and teams who did not attend the games. Many team members, including world record holder Wickham, did not travel to Moscow. But Ford was eager to show the rest of the world how far she had come since competing as a 13-year-old in Canada.
The turmoil didn’t stop when she arrived in Russia. The consequences of competing in an Olympics lacking public support became evident quickly.
It included a letter sent to her room in the Village that read: “If you stand on the starting blocks, you will be a traitor to your country.”
“Someone put their name to it but I didn’t even read that far, I threw it in the bin straight away,” Ford remembers.
“Wow, these are the Olympic Games, you’re representing and there to perform for Australia. And you get this knock on the head just before you go up to the starting blocks.
“Team members had been receiving death threats, and their families.
“We had to sneak away into a training camp to be hidden. We started thinking about having guards just to make sure there was no infiltration.”
But in the back of her mind, she knew that the biggest challenge was still set to be the competitors on either side of her on the blocks. Bigger, stronger, emotionless – Ford focused solely on delivering her best-ever performance against the world’s elite.
Ford swam in three events in Moscow.
First was the 200m butterfly. The fastest qualifier going into the final, the Australian was outsmarted by the three East German swimmers who swam as a pack. One would go out hard, taking Ford with her, the other two would finish over the top.
She managed to hang on to the bronze medal, her first Olympic podium. But even then, it acted more as a wake-up call to what she was up against.
The 400m freestyle followed, the first of the longer-distance events that suited Ford. On the day of the final, she found herself on a bus that got lost – a delay that meant her warm-up and pre-race preparations were cut short, leaving her flustered. The East German trio of Ines Diers, Petra Schneider and Carmela Schmidt claimed all three of the medals.
But Ford felt the 800m freestyle was always going to be her race. With four days off in between races and the Australian Olympic Team organising a private car to get her to the pool, the preparation had finally fallen into place.
“I coached Michelle more focused on the event than I’ve ever coached anyone in my life,” Sweetenham says.
“And she had the capacity and capability to handle the work that I was designing for her.
“I stood in the call room in Moscow and I thought to myself, Michelle is about to perform like no athlete has ever performed before. This was her time.”
By the time she entered the water for the first of her 16 laps, nothing was going to stand in the way of Ford and history, not even the East Germans who until this point had won every other female swimming gold medal.
She no longer felt intimidated, the focus was on her strategy – blowing them out of the pool.
“I knew that they were strong with enormous power and stamina. So it was my plan to scare them and take the lead earlier than expected. That surprised them,” Ford recalls.
“I was the target. I had the best times coming in and they knew who I was.
“The Olympic Games is only once every four years and this race was about winning, not the time you swam. So my plan was perfectly executed and when I cruised past them, I don’t think they realised what had happened.”
Ford had been waiting for her opponents to swim over the top of her, but it never came.
“I learned years later that they were told coming into the race that they would win first, second and third in every event.”
“And they nearly did.”
Ford touched the wall in a time of 8:28.90, nearly four seconds faster than Diers in second.
It was also a new Olympic Record, beating Petra Thumer’s time from Montreal by more than eight seconds.
As the Australian removed her cap and pumped her fist in the air, it was noticeable the lack of emotion shown by her adversaries. Their heads had dropped, arms gripping the starting blocks, shock written on their faces.
“The East German coaches were distraught,” Sweetenham remembers.
“They had promised the powers to be a gold medal.”
The medal was Australia’s first swimming gold since Shane Gould in 1972. Standing on the top of the medal dais was an emotional moment for Ford as she listened to the Australian anthem. Even on the other side of the world, it brings out a special sense of accomplishment.
But the moment that it sunk in was during an interview with former swimmer, Judy-Joy Davis.
“Michelle, you’ve just saved Australian sport,” Davis remarked.
Deep down, Ford knew she had achieved even more. She was the only woman from outside the Soviet Bloc to win gold in Moscow.
“She tore the heart out of the East German system with that one swim,” Sweetenham says.
Moscow was always set to be Ford’s last Olympics. She had no desire to continue pushing her body to the limit without the financial support that exists now.
She joined the US collegiate system that had just opened up scholarships for international athletes. It allowed her to continue to quench her competitiveness while also getting an education.
But at the back of her mind was always a ‘What if?’. There was a quiet acceptance that the East Germans’ success in the pool had come unnaturally, “but until that time there was no real proof,” Ford says.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a significant moment in history. It marked the reunification of Germany and the decline of communist influence in Eastern Europe.
Yet, in one small box in the back of a garage in East Germany, it also brought about the demise of one of the most systematic doping programs in history.
In the home of Dr Lothar Kipke, a member of the FINA Medical Commission and the head physician for the East German Swimming Federation, files were found that became known as ‘State Plan 14:25’.
The documents showed with intricate detail the anabolic steroids that were given to female athletes, starting from the age of just 12. They were all designed to increase the testosterone levels in young girls, up to three-fold.
The drugs were regularly administered by doctors and coaches. With regards to the 1980 Games, injections or Oral-Turinabol, a synthetic anabolic agent, were the drugs used on over 30 East German swimmers.
Each of the East German female swimming medal winners in Moscow, in particular, those that had finished ahead of Ford, had received steroid doses as well as top-ups while in the Olympic Village and ahead of their finals.
“The Germans had written them down point by point, and that’s the difference,” Ford says.
“They took themselves to a court of law and questioned the administration and the athletes and coaches on what they did to their people, the girls in particular.
“The girls stood up on trial and said it was wrong and the GDR coaches and administrators were convicted, while the athletes received financial compensation.
“And the proof is now revealed how much each athlete was given and it was very detailed.”
Kipke admitted his part in the program and was found guilty on 58 counts of causing bodily harm. He was given a $4,000 fine and a 15-month suspended jail sentence.
“I knew in my heart that the East Germans were cheating,” says Sweetenham.
“The steroid-taking stole, and I don’t use the word stole lightly, medals from several swimmers, one of which was Michelle.
“I don’t think there’s anything more disappointing for an athlete to produce the world‘s best performance in chaos and challenge, to find out that they’ve been beaten by someone who cheated.
“But not only was Michelle beaten by athletes from a rogue system, she lost because of a rogue scientist sitting on the board of FINA.”
The court case proved that the medals had been won in 1980, as well as in many other competitions, illegally. Yet there were no moves to rectify and reallocate them.
Ford is one of eight Australians, including Nicole Livingstone and Lisa Curry, who would be set to receive new Olympic medals, if action was taken.
It was only in November 2021 that Kipke was officially stripped of the FINA silver pin award that he received in 1985, the same time he was overseeing the doping program.
“Perhaps their (IOC and FINA) initial thoughts might be that it will open Pandora’s box, but it’s not,” Ford says.
“It’s very clear in the Stasi documents those who were doped.
“To rectify the past will give a strong message to the next generation of athletes that if they dope, they will be sanctioned. More recently, many athletes have lost their medals due to doping through the IOC podium program. “
And while Ford has been consistently surprised at the reluctance to set the record straight, the new era of FINA governance, led by new president Husain Al-Musallam, has given hope to the swimmers affected that change is closer than it has ever been.
In a comment provided to CodeSports, FINA confirmed that an integrity unit will be established, with the members to be elected to investigate the matter.
“FINA is committed to building aquatic sport on the strongest possible foundations. This is why FINA has begun a wide-ranging process of reform, part of which is the proposal – already approved by the FINA Bureau – for the creation of an independent Aquatics Integrity Unit,” the statement read.
“Once established, the independent Aquatics Integrity Unit will investigate the matter to determine what recourse may be taken in support of swimmers who competed against the former and all other aquatics athletes.
“Nevertheless, medal reallocation for the Olympic Games remains the ultimate responsibility of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).”
It’s a move endorsed by Swimming Australia which also hopes to see the results of 1980 re-examined.
“Swimming Australia fully supports Michelle Ford and the broader campaign to see the relevant medals from the 1980 Olympic Games reviewed,” Swimming Australia told CodeSports.
“We understand FINA has made meaningful progress on this matter and we hope to see the IOC give the issue serious consideration as soon as is possible.”
However, the IOC is set to be the biggest sticking point in the process due to certain legal restrictions.
“The IOC is unable to take any further action because of the statute of limitation,” a representative told CodeSports.
The current Olympic medal reallocation procedure involves reanalysing samples to confirm negative tests. The latest push surrounding the East German program has been directed at the IOC to no longer stand behind the statute of limitations and simply acknowledge the legal findings that are available from the German Doping Trials between 1998-2000.
Athletes like Ford know that many of the athletes were unwilling participants in the program. In their eyes, this isn’t a battle for retribution, it’s for reconciliation.
“This is about recognition of the achievements and rightful placegetters. This wouldn’t be the first time they’ve given medals back over the years,” Ford says.
“There’s a lot of history behind it, sure. But when you turn up to the starting blocks, you want to know you have a chance, and that the best athlete on that day wins. This is sport and what the Olympics is about, fair play.
“Thomas Bach should see the scope of this being one of his greatest legacies as President.”
An investigation by News Corp has also confirmed that other international swimmers affected by East German doping are willing to take legal action against the IOC if action continues not to be taken.
While steps have been taken in the last 12 months in the right direction, those who lived the experience in Moscow get the sense that avoidance is prevailing as the easier option.
“Until they finally admit what they’ve done and reinstate the outcome of these types of athletes, my bitterness will probably go to the grave with me,” Sweetenham says.
“Justice has been denied when there’s an opportunity for forgiveness to take place.”
It means that athletes like Ford will never be fully celebrated for their achievements.
“Michelle Ford should be celebrated as a three-time Olympic gold medallist and receive that recognition in form of duplicate medals,” Sweetenham adds.
To Ford, it’s not about the personal recognition or adding medals to her collection.
It’s about setting a standard in sport that once an event starts, no matter the discipline, the playing field is equal.
“The point of the argument is the fairness in sport,” Ford says.
“And the fairness to those who haven’t yet been recognised for a position on the podium at the Olympic Games.
“Winning three golds is fantastic and it would push me up in Australian terms to the higher echelons of our sporting greats.
“But what a gold medal means to others is what’s important here, and they’ve been denied that.”