ANGELA DEMONT'S third-grade classmate knew how to get under her skin. "Wasn't your dad a drug cheat?" she asked. Angela, now 15, came home crying that day. Had her father, Rick, merely won gold medals and broken world swimming records, he could have floated peacefully into the firmament of Olympians who flicker and dim with each passing quadrennium. Instead, DeMont's name stands alone in an infamous place it doesn't belong. When the International Olympic Committee struck replacement medals for Jim Thorpe's family in 1983, DeMont was left as the only U.S. Olympian to have been permanently disqualified after winning a gold.
A successful painter, and assistant swim coach at Arizona, DeMont has tried to forget the hours that followed his victory, at age 16, in the 400-meter freestyle at the 1972 Munich Games, but the ignominy has followed him. During the 2000 Olympics the Sydney Daily Telegraph put him No. 2, behind Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, on its list of the Olympics' "Top Ten Drug Cheats."
It has taken nearly three decades for someone in an official position to say that DeMont's positive test wasn't his fault. This week the USOC is expected to announce that at its board meeting in April it will recognize the legitimacy of DeMont's achievements. As DeMont's medal sits in a vault near the IOC's headquarters in Lausanne, the IOC could revisit his case as early as Feb. 5, when its executive board meets in Dakar. "It's pretty clear we don't think Rick was a deliberate cheater," says IOC member Richard Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency and a strong candidate to become the next IOC president. "Certainly the IOC would consider what it might be able to provide Rick DeMont to make sure his reputation is restored. If extenuating circumstances are acknowledged, I would be prepared to bring the matter forward for that purpose in Dakar."
DeMont suffered his first asthma attack at age four and took weekly allergy shots even into college. He began swimming at age seven as a sort of hydrotherapy. While competing at the 1971 AAUs, DeMont had trouble breathing. He visited the official physician, who prescribed Marax, an antiasthma medication that contained ephedrine, a stimulant on the banned list the IOC had compiled for the first time in the wake of the 1968 Mexico City Games. DeMont finished poorly in that meet but later qualified for the '72 U.S. Olympic team in the 400-meter freestyle and the 1,500 free, in which he held the world record. Before the Games, DeMont listed Marax among his medications on a team medical form.
The night before the Olympic 400 final, DeMont awoke at 1 a.m., wheezing and coughing. He took a Marax tablet and fell back to sleep soon after. The next morning he went to the U.S. medical facility in the Olympic Village but was told that all medical personnel had left for the track stadium. He took another Marax tablet. A poor starter, DeMont rallied from last place at 150 meters and edged Australia's Brad Cooper by .01 of a second to win in 4:00.26. That night DeMont went to sleep wearing the gold medal around his neck.
The next day the USOC was notified by the IOC medical commission that DeMont's postrace urine test had come up positive for ephedrine. A U.S. team doctor, Winston Riehl, called DeMont's pharmacy in Mill Valley, Calif., to ask about DeMont's prescribed dosage and what was in Marax. The following day a U.S. team manager came to DeMont's room in the Village and confiscated the Marax, which was in plain view on the bedside table. On the morning of the next day—the 1,500 final would be that night—a hastily called IOC medical commission grilled DeMont about his medical history. The commission offered to disqualify him from the 400 but allow him to swim in the 1,500 if U.S. doctors would take responsibility for the oversight. They did not because, according to Riehl, "It was the position of the USOC medical staff to
be noncommittal while trying to make an appeal for keeping Rick's gold medal." DeMont went home.
In 1973 DeMont won the world title in the 400, beating Cooper and becoming the first swimmer to break the four-minute barrier, but he never swam at another Olympics. He has gone on to coach 17 NCAA and U.S. national champions, including Chrissy Perham, who gave DeMont the gold medal she won at the '92 Barcelona Olympics in the 4 x 100-meter relay, telling him, "Hold on to this until you get yours."
The DeMont case prodded U.S. team doctors to be more aware of the presence of banned substances in athletes' medications. Before the next Olympics the U.S. swim team randomly tested 51 U.S. athletes and warned 16 of them that they were unknowingly taking banned medications. Had DeMont been disqualified today, he could have appealed to the IOC-recognized Court of Arbitration for Sport, which in 1996 overturned a two-year ban on asthmatic Finnish swimmer Petteri Lehtinen, who had failed to list the stimulant he was taking on his medical form. Shooter George Quigley of the U.S. tested positive for ephedrine at the '94 world championships in Cairo but got to keep his gold medal after noting that the
Egyptian doctor who prescribed it gave Quigley instructions in Arabic. When Scott Volkers, then the coach of Australian Olympic swimmer Samantha Riley, explained that he had mistakenly given Riley a headache tablet that caused her to test positive at the World Short Course Championships in '95, the sport's international governing body suspended Volkers for two years (the suspension was reduced to one year and then expunged) but let Riley off with a warning. After testing positive for ephedrine at the Sydney Games, Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan was stripped of her gold medal in the all-around competition but allowed to keep her team and apparatus medals because she had tested negative after winning them.
DeMont insists he would prefer a repaired reputation to a returned medal, which he would accept only if Cooper were allowed to keep his. The public came to view Thorpe's slight as an absurdity long before the IOC struck replacement medals. DeMont deserves to have his daughter arrive home from school with a tale that someone approached her to ask, "Hey, Angela, wasn't your dad a great Olympic champion?"