Nicola Williams interviewed Sharron Davies MBE on stage at the #WPUKFairPlay sports meeting in 2019. This is the written transcript of their conversation.
(or you can watch the video here: Sharron Davies interview on Vimeo
Nicola Williams: What we’ve seen tonight is testimony from athletes about what it’s like when they stand there at the start of a race, they line up and they know they’re not going to win. And, of course, you know that from back when you were having your international career in swimming when the East Germans were doping. So I just wanted to talk a little bit about that to start with. What was it like back then? Was it obvious? Did everybody know that they were doping? Did they know that was unfair?
Sharron Davies: I think I suppose that’s probably why I am the most vocal about this. And I am not the only one feeling this. I know that sometimes, you know, maybe there’s not so many people being able to come out and speak. I know that Paula [Radcliffe] has and Kelly [Holmes] has. And Tanni [Grey-Thompson] has. And, you know, it’s growing. But I can promise you that I speak to athletes all the time, young competing athletes and retired athletes, and every single one of them, male and female, feel the same way.
This is not something that’s just one or two of us. This is all of us – people that understand elite sport. What I find terrible about the whole situation is the intimidation that is put on people to be able to have free speech and to be able to just say please give us scientific evidence. Please show us where these huge differences between male and female performances are just being disintegrated and disappearing. It just doesn’t happen and it won’t happen.
I think things will change. So for me, because I went through that period with the East German athletes where at the age of 13 I went off to my first Olympic Games and I think they dominated from the ‘68 Olympics all the way through to when the wall came down in ‘88. And so in ‘76, I remember being a 13 year old and standing next to Kornelia Ender, who was just absolutely ginormous. Now, I have no issue with the individuals because they were involved in a state-run doping program and they were fed these horrendous old-fashioned steroids, testosterone, stanozolol, all sorts of things, just to give them a performance advantage.
And many of them were put on it before puberty. So you can imagine the effect that it had on these young girls, you know, it really had massive side effects. They would have incredibly deep voices. They would have five o’clock shadows. They would have Adam’s apples. They would have massive muscles, lat muscles. They were kept very segregated from us. They weren’t allowed to mix. They didn’t speak a great deal of English anyway but they were always herded around in groups, and they had a lot of officials with them, a lot of big coaches and physios. And they were kept very separate. And we would never see these athletes beforehand. There was no out-of-season testing, there was no out-of-country testing, and it was fairly basic. And what I found very frustrating was that they had an East German doctor sitting on the international doping panel. So every time they came up with a new test, they would just go back and work out how they would avoid it.
And it was really quite simple, because once you take somebody off testosterone for a certain period of time, you can suppress the testosterone as we know, which happens with transgender athletes, and that testosterone immediately comes down, but all the benefit of that testosterone will still be there. So they would just arrive at a major competition, we’d never seen them before, and they would get in the water and they would smash world records.
NW: So did everybody know that they were doping? And did you talk to your teammates about it? Did you complain to officials?
Sharron Davies: Yes. We did all of those things.
NW: Why was it not sorted out at the time?
Sharron Davies: For exactly the same reasons it’s not being sorted out now. It was just not ‘PC’ to talk about these things because all they would do is turn around and say, well, we’ve tested them and the tests are not proving positive. And they just didn’t have access to the athletes back in East Germany. They had hardly any male success whatsoever, it was very, very limited. Their female success was totally dominant in swimming. When I was competing, they were allowed three athletes per event. That’s now down to two, but track and field it is still three. And we had many events where they would take first, second and third. And we had British athletes who came fourth who you have never heard of. You know, they would have been Olympic champions. And it’s just so heartbreaking. And I don’t want that to happen to another generation, which is why I’m so vocal about this, because I know what will happen.
But that’s why and I suppose it does give me a little bit more authority, because I’ve been there, bought the T-shirt. I know what it’s like to stand next to somebody who you just think, no matter how hard I work, no matter how hard I train, I don’t have the physical equipment to be able to beat you. I did a documentary for Channel Five where I went to East Germany after the wall came down and I was invited into the Stasi to go and see a load of files and also to meet Petra Schneider, who is the girl that beat me.
And they were proving that they could make a minimum of a nine percent improvement. So they could basically take a very average athlete and give them the drugs and turn them into world record holders, very simply. And if they didn’t want to comply, that didn’t matter because they only needed an average athlete. So they had an endless supply of average athletes, to be honest with you. And sometimes there were the occasional people that worked out what was going on, or they had members of their family that were doctors and they would remove them as soon as they found out.
But of course, they weren’t just rewarding them with the medals, which at the time was also against the rules. They were also giving them houses and cars and advantages, which were also against the rules at the time. But you know, who would blame those East German athletes when they had so little? So, again, I don’t personally have a problem with the individuals because I don’t think they had a great deal of choice in the matter. But I have a real problem with the IOC because the IOC had people defecting with little blue pills, telling them what they were doing. They could see all of their results. They had this East German doctor. They knew what was going on. They just didn’t want to deal with it.
NW: So they were turning a blind eye then but now they’re actually writing the unfairness into the rules.
Sharron Davies: Yes, it’s even worse now isn’t it. Absolutely. So, you know, I find it so frustrating when it gets thrown at me that ‘Oh, the IOC have made the rules, Oh the IOC have made the guidelines’. The IOC are not the people to hold up as the examples of how to run sports.
NW: So one of the things that I was really shocked with when I look back at the days when you were swimming, there was a woman called Shirley Babashoff in the US, a swimmer. And she got really badly treated. There’s a picture of her on the podium frowning because she came second.
Sharron Davies: She picked up many second medals and bronze medals as well. She would have been a multi gold medal winner during that Kornelia Ender era. She would have been an absolute darling of America and made a lot of money and all the rest of it. And she actually spoke out and she just got called a bad loser. And that was how difficult it was.
My father was my coach and my dad used to speak out regularly about the East Germans and say, why is something not being done? These people are cheating. He had four people on the Olympic team for the Moscow 1980 Olympics, including myself. And I was the only female athlete from the whole of Great Britain to win an individual medal from that Olympic Games, and my father was never picked as a coach because he spoke out all the time.
NW: The parallels with what happened then and what’s happening now in terms of not being able to speak out are just undeniable, aren’t they?
Sharron Davies: Yeah, absolutely.
NW: How did you manage, standing on the podium yourself, because you lost your own gold medal chances. You’ve never been able to be announced as a gold medalist.
Sharron Davies: Oh yes. Visits to number 10. Free Wimbledon tickets!
NW: So how did it feel when you were on the podium and how have you managed with that injustice through your life?
Sharron Davies: I suppose because I don’t have an issue with her [Petra Schneider]. I don’t have a reason to feel vindictive towards her. And I met her when I did this documentary and she was very poorly. She had one child. She desperately wanted more. She couldn’t, she had real issues. She was on heart pills. She still had the appearance that was extremely masculine. She lived in what was a very rundown area of Dresden, in what we would call a council estate. Nothing wrong with that. But it wasn’t – as you can imagine behind the Eastern Bloc, it was not very well looked after. She’d had stones thrown through her wall because actually the East German people knew what was going on as well, eventually, by the time they got to the wall coming down. So they were kind of vilified by their own people in a way, too. So I never had a problem with her as an individual. I always had a problem with the IOC and the people in power who did absolutely nothing about it. I just felt they had hugely let down two groups of people. And we’ve since had people that have died, that have had children that are malformed, you know, all sorts of problems. They went to court and they gave them, I think, a pot of about just under eight million pounds, which had to be divided amongst over a thousand of them that brought a case, including Petra Schneider, so they ended up with seven and a half thousand pounds I think each for all of the distress that they’d gone through.
NW: So even when it was proven that you’d had your gold medal basically stolen from you, essentially it was never even addressed
Sharron Davies: So they never wanted to and they still don’t want to do anything about it. They just want to pretend that they weren’t complicit to the whole thing. So I’m making sure now that they understand that we have a problem with what they’re doing and that they’re being complicit again.
And I just hope there are people out there that are taking note and that, you know, that we can turn around as women and say, where are our human rights in all of this? Who is standing up for our human rights to have a fair level playing field. [Audience: You are!]
NW: We’ve heard today that we’re many years away from good scientific evidence on transgender athletes to prove or not whether it’s fair. So we need to stop the rules now and wait for the evidence. Because if not at the Olympic Games in 2020, women will lose medals and never get them back. World records will be broken and they’ll stand for years won’t they, because they’ll have been set by males not females.
Sharron Davies: And even if we do reissue medals, which they won’t, because obviously, if the rules stand today and you win a medal as the rules stand today, then no one could say that you were cheating in any form, which obviously they’re not as the rules stand. So therefore those medals will not be returned.
And it’s the opportunities to make a living. People forget that sport nowadays isn’t just something you do on a Sunday afternoon. You know, this is something that, even in my day, I was training six hours a day, six days a week, from the age of eight.
And I have to say that there are male sports people that support us – there’s my really good friend Daley Thompson who’s come today.
One afternoon we decided we wanted to present a letter to the IOC and literally myself, Paula and Kelly rang around a few friends and we had 60 people sign, all of which were Olympic medalists and world champions – within half a day. You know, yeah, they are out there. It’s just trying to get people to be brave enough to be able to speak up, really.
NW: I’m hoping events like this just start to push that a little bit further and then people would start to join us. People have got to be the first to speak.
Sharron Davies: Can I just say how amazing you guys have all been? Because it has been, it is so lovely to put some faces to some Twitter names out there. Honestly, I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you rush to my defense so much. I try so hard not to get rude with these people or and say what I really want to say so much, but I know that I need to stay fact-based, that I need to be respectful.
And I genuinely have no issue with anyone that is transgender. I believe that it is probably a very tough thing to have to go through in life trying to understand and to deal with, the same with, you know, with anyone’s sexuality. That’s your personal choice. You are totally entitled to it. The thing I find extraordinary nowadays is, half the time, why do we even need to talk about that? We should just respect each other for being what we are. We shouldn’t have to wave all these banners around, we’re just people. And I would always treat people the way that I’m treated, you know, and that was kind of what my mum and dad brought me up doing. And I was so lucky because I traveled the world at such a young age and I just always treated people the way I found them, whatever colour they were, whatever country they came from, whatever religion they had, whatever sexuality, that made no difference to me. I just treated them as equals. So that was something I kind of grew up with, really. And it’s the thing I find the most upsetting with all of this is being called constant names for which I am not. Yeah, but, you know, that’s all they seem to do. If they haven’t got an argument, they just throw names. So I’ve grown a very thick skin.