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How Australian heroine Ford overcame dopers, her own Government and “traitor” slur to win famous Olympic gold

by ZwemZa on May 24th, 2020

Michelle Ford is the pool in Moscow ©Getty Images

When Michelle Ford stood on the starting block of lane three for the Olympic 800 metres freestyle final on July 26 1980, she had East Germans to her left and right, in lanes one, four and five. A quick look at the results from the first five days of competition – and at the past two Olympic Games – showed what the Australian teenager was up against.

Of the 10 finals so far in the pool at the Olympiysky Sports Complex in Moscow, East Germans had won nine. In the three earlier freestyle events, including the 400m in which Ford was fourth, East Germany had finished 1-2-3.

Four years earlier Ford, whose 14th birthday fell during the Montreal Games, had first encountered the East Germans. She was struck by their deep voices, hairy armpits and arms as big as her thighs. Australian women had won five individual gold medals in swimming at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich but they went home from Montreal with none, and now Ford was their last chance of winning one in Moscow.

The East Germans, meanwhile, went from none in Munich to a barely believable 11 in Montreal. The “barely believable” epithet remains to this day because the East German swimmers were never caught for cheating, even though it later transpired they were doing it through a state-sponsored doping programme.

As if trying to keep those illegally-enhanced East Germans off the top of the podium again was not hard enough, Ford – who had earlier won a bronze in the 200m butterfly – had far more to contend with, thanks to the President of the United States, her own Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, and the Australian media.

At 7am on the day of her 800m final, Ford was feeling fit and confident, her coach Bill Sweetenham having assured her she could triumph in her favourite event. Alone in her shared room in the Athletes’ Village while her team mates trained, she spent the time opening fan mail, and letters from her friends.

“Far from home, telefaxes and fan mail became our solace,” Ford told insidethegames last week from her home in Lausanne.

“Receiving letters from people you didn’t know was so amazing and quite moving.”

When she reached for the next letter she paused and looked at the envelope, not recognising the writing.

“I opened it and began reading… it just wasn’t right. I felt anger, astonishment, bewilderment as I reread it, taking in every word.

‘Michelle, you must withdraw from your race… If you decide not to and dare to stand up on the blocks you will be a traitor to this country.’’

“How could someone write such a letter? How rotten, I thought. Rotten that some still think of us as traitors. Rotten that it arrived at this very moment, hours before my 800 metres final. The words hurt, the untruths. It was poison. What had we done to deserve this?”

What they had done was this – they had gone against their Government’s wishes, said no to their bribes, ignored a vitriolic media campaign in which Rupert Murdoch played a leading role, and stood up for their right to travel to Moscow and compete in the Olympic Games.

To many at the time, and to many more in hindsight, this was not treacherous, it was honourable. It was the right thing to do.

Forty years ago this weekend, on May 23 1980, the Board of the Australian Olympic Federation (AOF) voted six to five to give Ford and her team mates the go-ahead to take part in Moscow.

“The most frantic and appalling week in Australian sport was about to begin,” said Lisa Forrest, the swimming team captain, many years later.

Australia, or rather Australian sport, had said no to a boycott dreamed up by West Germany’s ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), then picked up and led by Jimmy Carter, President of the US.

Carter, who later in the year would lose the US election more heavily than any sitting President before or since, used the Olympic boycott as a form of protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

These were the first Olympic Games to be hosted in the Communist world, and Carter was determined to take a stand. His boycott revitalised the Cold War, which lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and resulted in a retaliatory Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Lord Killanin, then president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) later said, “The boycott of the Moscow Games was the most damaging event since the Games were revived in 1896.”

Ford first heard talk of a boycott in January 1980, a few weeks before the US hosted the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, where the host nation’s ice hockey team famously defeated the Soviet Union in the ‘Miracle on Ice’.

At the time Ford was surrounded by American, Canadian and British swimmers who, like her, were training in Tennessee in preparation for Moscow and competing for the Nashville Aquatic Club under the top Australian coach Don Talbot.

Having finished her final school exams in Sydney in November 1979, Ford spent four months in Nashville, flew home to earn selection at the Australian trials, then returned to the US for another two months.

For half of that time she was in a mess mentally because of the uncertainty over who would and would not be joining the boycott. Carter was relying on the support of Britain, where Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, and Fraser’s Australian Government.

“I couldn’t find the spark, nor much of anything. I found myself in a vortex… Had I lost that fight in me?” Ford recalled. She said all the talk of a boycott had a profound impact on training, mentally and physically, for all Olympic hopefuls.

She struggled through April, the month when it became clear to Americans and Canadians that their Olympic dream was over not because of their performances, but because the politicians said so.

“No words can describe my feelings when news came through that the US Olympic Committee had accepted Carter’s call to boycott the Games of the 22nd Olympiad,” Ford said.

“The rules of the IOC state that the National Olympic Committees ‘must be autonomous and must resist all pressures of any kind whatsoever whether political, religious or economic in nature.’ What did this mean for us in Australia – the sporting capital of the world, where nothing got in the way of sport? The Australian Government was explicitly telling the athletes that we would not be going.”

One of Ford’s team mates was Graham Smith, who won a record six gold medals for Canada at the 1978 Commonwealth Games and was a strong medal contender for Moscow, most notably in the event which was won by Britain’s Duncan Goodhew, the 100m breaststroke.

East Germany’s Kornelia Ender won four gold medal in the Montreal 1976 pool ©Getty Images

Smith was devastated by the boycott decision, which affected him for years. He said recently, “It still hurts. It really took its toll. Throughout the ’80s I was listless. I had failed relationships and some failed jobs. The 80s for me really sucked. It [the boycott] is a wound that never went away.”

Ford had to wait nearly a month longer than Smith to learn her fate, until May 23, the day before the deadline for nations to declare whether they were in or out.

She was buoyed by news from Britain. Thatcher’s Government was roundly defeated when the British Olympic Association voted 22-4 to go to Moscow. But in Australia the debate went on and on.

The sports federations that made up the AOF voted neither “Yes” nor “No” in April; they voted to leave the final decision with the 11 members of the Executive Board.

There was no Twitter or minute-by-minute online reports back then. Ford was staying with a family in Nashville, where it was 2am by the time the phone call came from her parents. The American family had thoughtfully left the lights on in the hall so Ford could run down to answer.

It was good news. The AOF had voted 6-5 against the boycott and Ford was going to Moscow. “I was so overwhelmed. A smile, a chuckle, then came the wave of guilt towards my American friends, and over the training I had not done.”

When she returned to Australia for the final few weeks of training, Ford wondered over the hypocrisy.

Kevan Gosper, who had run for his country at the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games, who was a member of the IOC and would later become a vice-president, flew home from his job for Shell in London to vote in favour of the boycott.

He would be in Moscow for the IOC conference but his sermon was that athletes must not be.

After the AOF vote the Government tried – and often succeeded – to bribe sport federations and individual athletes not to go to Moscow. They offered AUD6,000 (£3,200/$3,900/€3,600) to the “amateur” team members to stay at home, but it was business as usual away from the sporting arena, with wheat sales to the Soviets doubling from the previous year.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 30 stated: “Meanwhile, the Fraser Government continues to foster and expand profitable trade in a wide range of goods of strategic value to the Soviet Union, with some of those profits flowing to members of the Government, including the Prime Minister.”

t was unusual, though, for the media to say anything in favour of the athletes. In his 2011 book, Dropping the Torch, the American academic Nicholas Sarantakes states that the sports editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph in Sydney lost his job after writing a column in favour of Australia going to Moscow.

The general view was encapsulated in an editorial in the Herald of Melbourne: “Whoever and whatever goes to Moscow for the Summer Olympics, it will not be the pride of Australian sport.”

Fraser resorted to making outrageous comments. No wonder he admitted decades later that the boycott was a bad idea, one he should never have supported, as did Gosper.

Fraser, who died in 2015, must have cringed when he looked back at words such as these, which he used in a public statement: “I pray the Olympians who do go to Moscow will not pay the price that many of those who went to the Berlin Olympics paid once the World War started in 1939.”

Between the time of the 6-5 vote and the athletes’ departure for Moscow, the Government and the media had done such a good job that only 126 of the 273 originally selected were left. They would march in the Opening Ceremony under the Olympic flag but compete under their own.

On the long journey via France, Ford had time to reflect on all that had happened. “The craziness of it all… the strains and pulls we had no control over… how miserable I had been… the temptations to throw in the towel.”

At the Opening Ceremony there was a reminder of the stupidity of the boycott, which kept 65 nations away from Moscow.

“Watching as the teams filed in, I was suddenly gobsmacked. Taking their place behind us was the team from Afghanistan. Athletes like us, 13 of them. Their country was the epicentre of the boycott debacle, and here they were. An Olympics just like any other where those participating are Olympians and part of history.”

Once the competition started “all that talk of fear left me”, Ford’s mood improved, and she turned her attention to the next big obstacle – the East Germans.

She thought back to Montreal 1976, when she had travelled as a 14-year-old. “I recalled the bus ride when an East German had put her arm up on the seat in front of me and the shock of seeing its mighty size. My visit to the changing rooms, and thinking I had entered the men’s by mistake.

“My aspirations of winning gold had drowned when I came up off the dive in my 200m freestyle and 200m butterfly at the hips of the world record holder Kornelia Ender. I doubt she would even have considered me a threat. Now the tide had turned. Since then, I had two world records under my belt and my name dominated the world rankings – I was now 17 years old, wiser, and the number one threat.”

On the second day of competition Ford won Australia’s first medal of the Games, a bronze in the 200m butterfly, behind two East Germans and just ahead of a third.

“What relief. After all the tensions, the struggles, I had made it – an Olympic medal.”

A victorious Michelle Ford receives her gold medal ©Getty Images

There followed a heartbreaking fourth-place finish, a fraction of a second behind an East German 1-2-3 in the 400m freestyle. Ford’s preparations had been disrupted when her bus journey to the pool was delayed, she was unable to warm up properly, and she had no time for a massage.

A newspaper report put the task into perspective for Ford and her team mates. Australia’s amateur swimmers had two coaches and two managers. The state-supported East Germans had a support staff of “at least 20”, including four masseurs to Australia’s none.

To beat them, Ford and her coach Sweetenham had devised a plan. She would surprise the East Germans, who would try to pull her to the front right away, by holding back through the first two of the eight laps, then making a move.

“In an 800m, the first 100 is usually the fastest, then the pace drops on the third lap when the swimmers fall into their own rhythm,” she said.

Two of the East Germans established an early lead. “My target was the 150 mark. Usually, I would have built off the 200m mark, but today we wanted to surprise them.”

Ford went from seventh place to second, then took the lead. “Nobody came with me – I had swum through the field and at the 300m mark, I was nearly a body length in front. I continued to pull away, gaining nearly one second on each hundred. Nearing the 500m turn I was two body lengths in front.”

When the East German challenge came off the 600m turn, Ford was already three seconds clear. “I was ready, my race had been perfect, I still had reserves. ‘They are not going to take this from me,’ I kept repeating to myself. I no longer needed to look back.”

Ford won by eight seconds.

“I took in the crowd, the cheering. This was what I had worked for, this was my dream. I was breathing it, living it.

“Taking a few strokes away from the wall, a sense of serenity flooded my body. Hitting the water with my fist expelled the anxiety, the relief, the realisation, the joy. I looked up to my team mates and the Australian commentators in the stands and saluted them. We had done it – the first individual gold medal for Australia in Moscow – and an Olympic record!”

Ford won her gold, a Soviet swimmer won the 200m breaststroke and the East Germans won everything else, finishing with a women’s swimming tally of 11 golds, eight silvers and seven bronzes.

The IOC has never come to terms with East German doping in a court of law.

Ford was able to discuss the problems of doping, political interference and the other big issue of the time, amateurism, when she became a founding member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, in which capacity she joined Thomas Bach, Sebastian Coe and others at the famous Baden-Baden Olympic Congress in 1981.

She graduated in sports psychology and business, and has held directorships, advisory and ambassadorial roles for Sydney 2000, the IOC Olympic Academy, the Australian Sports Commission and the University and Polytechnic College of Lausanne, among others.

Michelle Ford at home in Lausanne ©Michelle Ford

Looking back again to April and May 1980, Ford said, “It was horrific, really. Even now there are athletes, friends of mine, who still carry the scars of the boycott.

“Athletes had their right to compete taken away, and for what?

“In Australia, the reason wasn’t valid. Australia was still trading with the Russians, our Prime Minister was still trading with the Russians.

“Why was the athlete sacrificed over everything else? It split the country.

“It’s not normal for the Australian Government to be so forceful over its own people. It was shocking.”

Brian Oliver | Inside the Games

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