Black History Month: Despite Stolen Gold, Enith Brigitha Was a Sporting Pioneer
By John Lohn, Editor, Swimming World
Emerging as a youth star from the island nation of Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles, Brigitha etched herself as one of the world’s most consistent performers during the 1970s, appearing in a pair of Olympic Games and three versions of the World Championships. More, she was a regular medalist at the European Championships.
It didn’t take long for Brigitha to become a known entity in the pool, such was her talent in the freestyle and backstroke events. But there was another factor that made the Dutchwoman impossible to miss. On a deck filled with white athletes, Brigitha stood out as one of the few members of her race to step onto a starting block, let alone contend with the world’s best.
In Montreal in 1976, Brigitha captured bronze medals in the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle to become the first black swimmer to stand on the podium at the Olympic Games. The efforts delivered a breakthrough for racial diversity in the sport and arrived 12 years ahead of Anthony Nesty’s historic performance. It was at the 1988 Games in Seoul in which Nesty, from Suriname, edged American Matt Biondi by .01 for gold in the 100 butterfly.
What Brigitha achieved in Montreal fit neatly with the progression she showed in the preceding years. After advancing to the finals of three events at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Brigitha was a medalist in her next five international competitions. It was this consistency that eventually led to Brigitha’s 2015 induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
“(It meant a lot) to be told by a coach, ‘We believe in you. You are going to reach the top,’” Brigitha said during her induction speech into the Hall of Fame. “It is so important that people express trust in you and your qualities when you are working on your career. I am very grateful to all the people who were there for me when I needed them the most.”
Brigitha’s first medals in international competition were claimed at the inaugural World Championships. In Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Brigitha earned a silver medal in the 200 backstroke and added a bronze medal in the 100 freestyle. That performance was followed a year later by a five-medal haul at the European Championships, with four of those medals earned in individual action. Aside from winning a silver medal in the 200 freestyle, Brigitha collected bronze medals in the 100 freestyle and both backstroke events.
Bronze medals were added at the 1975 World Championships in the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle and carried Brigitha into her second Olympiad. A silver medal in the 100 freestyle marked her lone individual podium finish at the 1977 European Championships, while the 1978 World Champs did not yield a medal and led the Dutch star into retirement.
Despite her success, which twice led to Brigitha being named the Netherlands’ Athlete of the Year, her career is also defined by what could have been. No two athletes were more wronged by East Germany’s systematic doping program than Brigitha and the United States’ Shirley Babashoff. At the 1976 Olympics, Babashoff won silver medals behind East Germans in three events, prompting the American to accuse – accurately, it was eventually proved – her East German rivals of steroid use. For her willingness to speak out, Babashoff was vilified in the press, called a sore loser and tagged with the nickname, “Surly Shirley.”
Brigitha experienced similar misfortune while racing against the East German machine. Of the 11 individual medals won by the Dutchwoman in international action, she was beaten by at least one swimmer from the German Democratic Republic in 10 of those events. Her bronze medal in the 100 freestyle is the performance that stands out.
In the final of the 100 free in Montreal, Brigitha placed behind East Germany’s Kornelia Ender and Petra Priemer. Upon the fall of the Berlin Wall and the release of thousands of documents of the East German Secret Police, known as the Stasi, it was revealed that Ender and Priemer were part of a systematic-doping program that spanned the early 1970s into the late 1980s and provided countless East German athletes with enhanced support, primarily in the form of the anabolic steroid, Oral-Turinabol.
Had Ender and Priemer not been steroid-fueled foes or been disqualified for their use of performance-enhancing drugs, Brigitha would have been the first black swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal, and her Hall of Fame induction would have come much earlier. Ender was a particular hurdle for Brigitha, as she won gold medals in six of the events in which Brigitha medaled on the international stage.
“Some gold medals didn’t come my way for reasons that are now well-known, namely the use of drugs by my rivals,” Brigitha said. “That gold has come my way (through induction into) the Hall of Fame. I thank the women who set an example and those who crossed the line with confidence and respect, but without the use of drugs.”
Babashoff has been a vocal proponent of reallocation, citing the need to right a confirmed wrong. If nothing else, she has sought recognition from the IOC and FINA that an illicit program was at work and damaged careers. Those pleas, however, have fallen short of triggering change, the IOC unwilling to edit the record book.
Calls have frequently been made for East German medals – Olympic, World Championships and European Champs – to be stripped and reallocated to the athletes who followed in the official results. However, officials from the International Olympic Committee and FINA, swimming’s global governing body, have refused to meet these demands.
“Every once in a while, we’ve looked at the issue hypothetically,” once stated Canadian Dick Pound, a 1960 Olympic swimmer and former Vice President of the International Olympic Committee. “But it’s just a nightmare when you try to rejigger what you think might have been history. For the IOC to step in and make these God-like decisions as to who should have gotten what…It’s just a bottomless swamp.”
Even without an Olympic gold medal that can be considered her right, Brigitha shines as a pioneer. In a sport in which black athletes were rare participants, Brigitha compiled an exquisite portfolio and proudly carried her race to heights that had never before been realized.