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'There are victims on both sides,' says Jill Sterkel, 1976 Olympic swimmer

At 19 years old, U.S. swimmer Shirley Babashoff (lane 5) helped her team win gold, defeating the East Germans in the final of the 400-meter freestyle relay at the 1976 Olympics. ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Before the race, the four U.S. women in the 400 freestyle relay at the 1976 Montreal Summer Games caucused to visualize the perfect swim.

They calculated the times it would take each of them to stay with or surge past the East Germans who had been clobbering them by body lengths in events often decided by fingertips. They convinced themselves that their brains could override artificially induced brawn. It was the final event of the meet -- and they were driven by pride and a good amount of anger.

Each swimmer executed in the way she had imagined. Incandescent talent Shirley Babashoff swam the anchor leg and they prevailed.

"The Last Gold,'' a documentary that will be shown in select theaters on July 11, focuses on the meaning of a race that took place 40 years ago but couldn't be more relevant today.

Like most sports movies, the dramatic narrative hinges on an inspirational moment. Yet this film is suffused with sadness.

Now ranging in age from 55 to 61, the American swimmers still feel cheated of peak moments and unrecognized in any form by the International Olympic Committee, which years ago turned down a U.S. request to upgrade or award new medals and revise the record books.

The East German women who won all but two of 13 swimming gold medals in 1976 -- and their contemporaries in other sports -- lost in the long run. Thousands were trapped in a communist system and subject to secret police surveillance. Some were doped before they even hit puberty. As adults, many developed health issues, including cancer and reproductive problems, or had children with birth defects.

Olympic sports officials in unified Germany paid compensation to a group of affected athletes in 2002 and recently announced plans for a second fund.

Babashoff and teammates Jill Sterkel and Wendy Boglioli reunited at the U.S. Olympic swim trials in Omaha, Nebraska, in late June and met with reporters to promote the film. (Kim Peyton, who led off the U.S. relay in the lane next to East German superstar Kornelia Ender, died at age 29 of an inoperable brain tumor.)

They found themselves talking as much about the present as the past. "The fact that Russia has this whole systematic [sports doping] -- it doesn't surprise me,'' said an animated, vivacious Boglioli, who works as a motivational speaker. "It was just a matter of time, because there's no consequences.'' She finished behind two East Germans in the 100-meter butterfly.

Boglioli then referred to the current legal dispute over whether Russian track and field athletes should compete at the Rio Games in August. "This idea that they're going to appeal, and maybe we should let them go and maybe we shouldn't, and oh, that won't look good if they're not there, and what should we do about that? No,'' she said. "They cheated, and it's done, and they don't get to go.''

Said Sterkel, the former women's swim coach at the University of Texas: "Had people stepped up 40 years ago, maybe we wouldn't be here now.'' Doping culture migrated and took root elsewhere rather than being eradicated, Sterkel said, and she thinks there should be no statute of limitations. "They let that message go, and it's just a bad lesson that cheaters might prosper sometimes,'' she said.

The swimmers spoke from a place of pain and authority. Sterkel was just 15 years old in Montreal. Peyton and Babashoff were 19, and Boglioli was 21. Drug testing was in its infancy. The Olympics were celebrated as a venue for pure, amateur competition. In the movie, the women described the demoralizing feeling of being beaten before they dived in, their training and drive trumped by chemistry.

Babashoff, who had been a candidate for multiple gold medals but collected four silvers instead, voiced suspicions about her bulked-up rivals. She got ripped for it, which "taught me to keep my mouth shut,'' Sterkel said, echoing the reluctance of today's athletes to point fingers in the absence of positive tests.

In Omaha, Babashoff sat back and let her teammates do most of the talking. Her memoir, "Making Waves,'' was released this month.

A longtime letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in her native Southern California, Babashoff retains a competitor's edge to her voice when she talks about 1976. "I just feel like some of them, the East German women, still feel like we were taking steroids too,'' she said. "They're just kind of overly brainwashed. Stubborn on saying that we deserved what we worked for, and that's the only thing that kind of gets me upset.''

"The Last Gold," which was produced by the sport's national governing body, USA Swimming, also illuminates the stories of several East German athletes. Boglioli expressed sympathy for those who were most deeply affected. "That's just horrific what these women went through,'' she said. "I can't even imagine. I have medals, I've got my health, I have healthy kids and grandkids -- and they don't have that.

"I look at an International Olympic Committee that is about the welfare, not only fair play, but protecting the athletes, and they failed to protect these women victims.''

Much of the footage in the movie looks antique: soldiers patrolling the Berlin Wall, swimmers tugging at tank suits in the starting blocks, scoreboards bereft of color and the cringe-worthy loud yellow blazers worn by ABC commentators Curt Gowdy and Donna de Varona. The grossly inflated physiques of the young East German athletes are jaw-dropping. Doping is harder to read at a glance now.

However, the themes that surfaced in the pools and on the playing fields of the 1970s have proved durable and insidious. Coercion, dummy labs and state involvement are embedded in the doping DNA of many modern Russian athletes, just as they were the East Germans. Medals lost in the moment take years to make their way to the right hands, or never change hands at all.

"I don't want to compare what we went through to the things they've had to deal with,'' Sterkel said. "They are the true victims, but in some situations, there are victims on both sides.''

Many current athletes will relate.

"The Last Gold" will be shown in select theaters on July 11. A portion of the proceeds goes to the USA Swimming Foundation. Go to thelastgold.com for more information.