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Women's 200 meter butterfly, Swimming, Barcelona 1992

posted July 10, 2008

Of all the American women who have ever competed in the Olympic Games, none was a more perfect embodiment of the All-American Girl than Summer Sanders in 1992. A beautiful and charismatic 19 year old California girl with a radiant smile, she looked like she could have stepped right out of a Beach Boys song. Summer was definitely America's Olympic Sweetheart going into the Barcelona Games.

She wasn't just a beautiful face and body either - she qualified for five events at the Barcelona Games, more than any other American swimmer: the 200 and 400 meter individual medleys, the 100 and 200 meter butterfly events, and the 4x100 medley relay. She had won both individual medleys and the 200 butterfly at the trials, and was considered one of the favorites for gold in all three events going into the Olympics. Three golds, including one for the relay, seemed a pretty good bet. With a little luck, she might come home with a fourth gold, for the 400 individual medley. With a lot of luck, she might even bring home all five. The expectations were obviously high, and Summer didn't mind: she had equally high expectations for herself.

However, there was a joker in the Barcelona deck that many of the experts hadn't fully foreseen: the Chinese women's Olympic swim team.

The Chinese women had only recently begun to emerge as a swimming power. Prior to the Seoul Games of 1988, they had never won an Olympic swimming medal. They won three silver and one bronze in Seoul. By the 1991 World Championships they had improved enough to win six medals, four of them gold. Still, the World Championships are not the Olympics, when everyone is at their absolute peak. The Chinese women generally weren't expected to do quite as well at Barcelona as they had at the Worlds the year before.

However, there were some who weren't so sure. The rise in performance of the Chinese women had begun not long after representatives from the East German swimming program had worked with the Chinese for a year in the mid-1980s. Later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, what had been long suspected about the East Germans was proven with large numbers of detailed documents that subsequently became public: since the mid-1970s the East Germans had been systematically using performance enhancing drugs, including anabolic steroids, on their athletes, especially their female swimmers. Drug testing programs by major competitive organizations, including the International Olympic Committee, had been slow to evolve, so the East Germans had gotten away with this blatant cheating for a long time.

Now, in the early 1990s, with the increasing success of the Chinese women swimmers, some were accusing China of having gotten more than just innocent coaching tips from the East Germans.

Since China was and is a communist country, and since leaders of communist countries care only about results, not rules or fairness, I didn't find the accusations hard to believe at all. When the female Chinese swimmers in Barcelona quickly began to not only equal but surpass their performance at the World Championships, I had no problem coming to the obvious conclusion that they weren't winning those medals honestly.

Now, I'm a person who believes in giving people the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. However, I also use common sense and am not afraid to come to overwhelmingly logical conclusions even when there is no definitive proof. The Chinese women were passing their drug tests in Barcelona, so there was no absolute proof to be had for the accusations of cheating. But there was a mountain of circumstantial evidence, and I was one of many who weren't afraid to conclude that cheating was definitely taking place.

As the whispers at the Barcelona Games about Chinese cheating grew to shouts, the Chinese reacted predictably, claiming it was purely better coaching techniques that had improved the performance of their female swimmers. But there was a counter to that: if it was purely coaching techniques, why was it that only the Chinese WOMEN were doing so well? Why weren't the Chinese men winning swimming medals too? For this the Chinese had no answer.

The primary victims of the Chinese women in the swimming competition at Barcelona were the American women. Jenny Thompson, favored to win gold in the 100 meter freestyle, came in second to China's Yong Zhuang. Christine Ahmann-Leighton, the favorite in the 100 butterfly, was beaten out by another Chinese swimmer, Hong Qian. Anita Nall was knocked from silver to bronze by Lin Li in the 200 breast stroke.

Lin Li victimized Summer Sanders even more. In the 400 meter individual medley, the gold was won by Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi, which was not surprising, though Summer had been considered an equal favorite. But instead of a silver medal in the event, she got only a bronze thanks to Lin Li. Then, in the 200 individual medley, an event that Summer was expected to win, she was edged out at the wall by Li, and had to settle for silver. She won a gold medal as a member of the medley relay, but she had expected herself to win gold in individual events as well. She was putting on a brave face for the cameras and interviewers, but once after the interviews had ended, a camera caught a shot of her crying in the arms of her coach.

Even though silver and bronze were nothing to be ashamed of, Summer's sadness broke my heart. All I could think was that this shouldn't be happening to America's Sweetheart - especially since if it wasn't for the cheating Chinese she would already have won at least one individual gold medal, and been happy.

So it all came down to the last day of the swimming competition, and the last race for Summer Sanders: the 200 meter butterfly. Like the 200 individual medley, this was an event that Summer had been expected to win going into the games. Now, however, many were predicting that she would once again finish behind the Chinese swimmer in the race, Wang Xiaohong.

I had to admit that circumstances pointed toward the distinct possibility of yet another Chinese win. But I refused to believe it. I wanted very badly to see the Chinese go down, and I wanted even worse to see Summer win, so she could leave Barcelona happy. I chose to believe in Summer Sanders, believe that she would somehow be able to dig down deep and find the strength and endurance to get to the final wall first.

I literally held my breath as the swimmers waited for the starting horn. This is it, Summer! I thought. We're all with you!

The horn sounded, and the swimmers dove into the pool. The fastest qualifier for the final was actually young Susan O'Neill, two years away from the start of her dominance of the event, and from being internationally known as 'Susie.' She was in lane 4. Summer had qualified second, and was thus in lane 5. Wang Xiaohong was in lane 2. O'Neill went out into the early lead, with Xiaohong barely behind. They stayed that way to the first wall, where they both turned under world record pace. Summer was already a third of a body length behind, which was not good news: she typically jumped out to the early lead and held it for the whole race. Was she changing strategy for this race, or was she just too tired from the long week of swims to keep up?

The second 50 was about the same as the first: O'Neill barely in front of Xiaohong, and Summer lagging behind in 3rd. When they turned for the second 100, O'Neill and Xiaohong were still ahead of the world record. Summer was hanging in there, not falling any farther back, still within striking distance if she could make a surge.

At the 150 wall, O'Neill was still barely in front of Xiaohong, but they had dropped below world record pace. This meant they had slowed slightly. Summer had inched up on them somewhat during the third 50, but still had distance to make up. She got an excellent push off the wall, and after a few strokes was even with O'Neill. Wang also came off the wall well and moved ahead of O'Neill for the first time It was going to be a three woman dash to the final wall. It was 'dig down deep' time for Summer Sanders. Would she be able to find enough there?

It didn't seem so. My heart sank a bit as she fell just behind O'Neill again, with O'Neill still just behind Xiaohong. With 10 meters to go, she was still a very close 3rd. But then she found that last reservoir of energy, born of desire and desperation, of the NEED to at last do what she had come to Barcelona for. By the time she had reached the red lane markers, indicating there were 5 meters to go, she had moved just past O'Neill. Then, with three final mighty strokes, she passed Xiaohong and touched the wall first.

I had been too absorbed in the race to say anything out loud beyond a soft mutter of, "Go! Go!" But then I saw 'Lane 5' flash onto the screen, the lane of the winner, Summer's lane. I was partly conscious of a strange sound from the TV, just before I threw my fists in the air and began pumping them, yelling, "YEEEEEEESS!!!! She did it! She did it!" It wasn't until I played the tape back later that I found out what that sound had been. After hitting the wall, Summer had turned and looked at the scoreboard, and saw that she had won. There wasn't a microphone near her at that moment, but wherever the nearest one was it clearly picked up the sound of her scream of pure joy as she raised her fist to the sky in triumph. The most beautiful smile was on her face as they cut to a closer shot of her, and there was a big smile on my face too: America's Sweetheart had finally won the individual gold she had wanted so badly, and in the process had also finally chilled China's artificially generated hot streak against the Americans.

China's dominance of women's swimming actually increased at the 1994 world championships. They won a total of 19 medals, 12 of them gold. Many expected them to make another strong showing at the 1996 Atlanta Games. However, by 1996 a much stronger and more comprehensive drug testing program was in place for all Olympic athletes. Lo and behold, in Atlanta the Chinese women were suddenly human again. They won only one gold, two silver and one bronze in individual events, plus silver and bronze in two of the relays. It was a vindication for all of us who hadn't been afraid to come to the obvious conclusion during the Barcelona Games, despite there being no proof of it. The vindication continued in the subsequent Olympics, with the Chinese women winning no medals at all in Sydney, and only two in Athens. All I can say is that if anyone still thinks the Chinese weren't doping when they were winning all those Olympic and world championship medals from 1991-1994, I truly hope they never get on a jury.

Summer Sanders went home from Barcelona very happy. When she was interviewed by NBC's Bob Costas in the studio the evening after her win in the 200 butterfly, she said that while she had initially been disappointed with her silver and bronze, she was now proud of all of her medals. So in the end all of her pain turned into joy. Her total of four Barcelona swimming medals was matched only by Aleksandr Popov of the Unified Team and Franziska van Almsick of Germany, and Summer was the only swimmer to medal in three individual events. She was justifiably proud and happy, and all of America was proud of her and happy for her.

Summer's win in the 200 meter butterfly turned out to be her last race at a world meet. She retired from swimming after the 1992 Olympics, completed her degree at Stanford University, then began a successful career in television that continues to this day. Prior to the 1996 Atlanta Games she came out of retirement long enough to try to make the Olympic team again, but failed to qualify, and instead did commentary on the swimming event broadcasts from the Atlanta Games. She never tried to make another swimming team. That was probably for the best. I think it's nice that our last memories of the swimming career of America's 1992 Olympic Sweetheart are of her screaming in delight as she pumped her fist in victory, and standing on top of the medal stand with "The Star Spangled Banner" playing, and tears of joy in her eyes.

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