By Sheila Robertson and Bruce Robertson
From time to time, various media outlets drag out the claim that prior to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Canada was the only host nation to fail to win an Olympic gold medal on home soil, and not only once but twice. The first occasion was the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and the second the Olympic Winter Games in Calgary 12 years later.
In Calgary, Canadian athletes produced brilliant performances: silver medals for figure skaters Brian Orser and Elizabeth Manley, both in the singles event, two bronze medals for skier Karen Percy in downhill and super-G, and the bronze medal for ice dancers Tracy Wilson and Robert McCall. Unfortunately, the excellence of these results was somewhat tarnished by the gold medal failure taunt.
Canada’s performances at the Montreal Olympics are traditionally cast as a national embarrassment, but the situation was far different from Calgary.
In this case, the so-called “fact” – not winning a gold medal − not only perpetuates a faulty legend, but sadly, it is also usually stated without context, and certainly without analysis of the reality of those Games for the women swimmers.
The search for the truth goes back to the 1972 Munich Olympics where the women’s swimming team from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) won two individual silver medals, one individual bronze medal, and two relay silver medals for a respectable total of five medals. One year later, at the 1973 World Aquatic Championships, they won a total of 18 medals: eight individual gold, five individual silver, three individual bronze, and two relay golds – a staggering improvement in just one year.
The East German women continued their domination at the 1975 worlds, winning a total of 19 medals of which eight were individual golds and two were relay golds. At the 1976 Olympics, they won 10 of the eleven available individual gold medals and one relay gold.
In view of the not-so-recent and widely reported revelations about systematic and rampant drug use throughout the East Germany sport system, lasting from 1973 until 1989, it is entirely reasonable to suggest that Canada’s so-called failure to win a gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games is anything but a national embarrassment.
What would have happened if this state-sponsored doping had not been a factor? We will never know for sure. Certainly, the East German women were excellent swimmers in their own right, but would they have been so dominant without drug enhancement (of which it appears they themselves were not aware)?
In 1976, the medal tally for Canada’s female swimmers was one individual silver, four individual bronze, and two relay bronze medals, for a total of seven medals. If the East German women’s team had been disqualified for doping, Canada could have won three individual gold, four individual silver, three individual bronze medals, and two relay silver medals for a total of 12 medals.
Cheryl Gibson and Becky Smith won silver and bronze respectively in 400 metre individual medley behind Ulrike Tauber of the GDR. Gold and silver could have been theirs. Nancy Garapick won bronze medals in 100 metre and 200 metre backstroke, behind Ulrike Richter and Brigit Treiber of the GDR. Two more gold medals. Also noteworthy is the fact that in the 100 metre backstroke, Wendy Hogg and Gibson were fourth and fifth; it could have been a Canadian sweep – gold, silver, and bronze.
Shannon Smith won the 400 metre freestyle bronze, behind Petra Thumer of the GDR and Shirley Babashoff of the United States (USA). Smith could have taken home the silver. Wendy Quirk was sixth in 100 metre butterfly, behind Kornelia Ender, Andrea Pollack, and Rosemarie Gabriel of the GDR, first, second, and fifth respectively. She could have been awarded the bronze medal. And in 200 metre butterfly, Quirk and Gibson were fifth and sixth, behind Pollack, Tauber, and Gabriel. With Karen Thornton of the USA taking fourth (and elevated to gold), Canada could have won another silver and bronze medal.
In the relays, Becky Smith, Gail Amundrud, Barbara Clark, and Anne Jardin won bronze in 4×100 metre freestyle relay, behind the USA and the GDR, and Jardin, Wendy Hogg, Robin Corsiglia, and Susan Sloan won bronze in 4×100 metre medley relay behind the GDR and the USA. Both teams could have won silver medals.
If the East Germans had competed clean, would Canada have won all 12 medals? The truth probably lies somewhere between the 12 we could have won given a full disqualification, and the seven we did win. We will be never certain, but what we do know is this: Canada would almost certainly have won at least one and likely three gold medals in Montreal.
If ever the obvious injustice is righted, Canada will no longer be dubbed the country that failed to win gold during a home Olympic Games. It is long past time for this to happen, if not officially then at least let Canada’s outstanding 1976 performances be portrayed with fact rather than myth.
Bruce won silver and bronze medals at the 1972 Olympic Games and was the 1973 world 100 metre butterfly champion. Sheila is the author of several books, including Shattered Hopes, Canada’s Boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games.