Rick DeMont’s Missing Gold

50th Munich Games: Rick DeMont’s Missing Gold; How a teenager was let down by those charged with protecting him

The 50th anniversary of the 1972 Olympics is a week away. There will be celebrations Mark Spitz seven-gold portrait show. We will remember the precocity of Shane Gould, the Australian teenager whose five solo medals remain a female standard. And we will honor the majesty of the back Roland Matheswho doubled up in his events for the second consecutive Olympics.

Golden anniversaries are supposed to be joyous occasions. But there is nothing festive about what for what Rick DeMont endured in Munich. DeMont’s story, half a century later, remains a sports crime, a young man denied his rightful place in history. A young man disappointed by the adults around him. A man, defined by extraordinary achievements in the coaching world, who does not own what is rightfully his.

When DeMont arrived in Munich, he was one of the youngest members of the American delegation. Spitz, of course, was the highest profile name on the list. Still, DeMont was a top contender for a pair of Olympic titles — in the 400 freestyle and 1,500 freestyle. In the longest race, DeMont was the world record holder, having set that global standard at the United States Olympic Trials. Munich, quite simply, was the stage to verify his status as the world’s leading distance freestyler.

The 400 freestyle was the first event of the DeMont Games, held a few days after the race. By the time DeMont took the blocks, he had handled the necessary pre-Games protocols. Most critical for the 16-year-old was a meeting with United States Olympic Committee officials to complete documentation regarding his asthma and to disclose the medications (Marax, Actifed, Sudafed) he took for the condition. Officials never raised any concerns.

Photo courtesy: Swimming World

Once the 400 freestyle began, the race evolved into a two-man battle between DeMont and the Australian Brad Cooper, considered the favorite for gold. Cooper held the lead for most of the race, including the final lap. But relying on his greater closing ability, DeMont overcame Cooper’s lead and drew even as the wall approached. In the end, the winner could not be determined by the human eye, and only when the scoreboard displayed the results was the winner recognized. On the touchline, it was DeMont who prevailed in 4:00.26, with Cooper the narrowest margin in 4:00.27.

“I’ve been swimming backstroke since I started,” DeMont said of his late rally. “At the United States Olympic trials, I was thinking strictly about the 1,500 meters. Now, I like the 400, especially after tonight.”

Since DeMont was stronger in the 1,500 freestyle, a second gold medal apparently awaited the American later in the meet. However, any chance to double up quickly disappeared. And so did the gold medal DeMont captured in the 400 freestyle. After his apparent triumph in the eight-lap race, DeMont was informed that his post-race doping test revealed trace amounts of Ephedrine, a banned substance.

The presence of ephedrine in his doping sample was not a shock, as the substance was contained in his asthma medication. The substance was also not supposed to be a problem, as USOC officials—after processing DeMont before the Games—were tasked with informing the International Olympic Committee of DeMont’s medical use. If the IOC had a problem with the substance, it would have notified the USOC and sought an alternative option. However, the USOC never engaged with the IOC on the subject.

“It was the USOC’s responsibility to let me know there was an illegal substance in my prescription and either clear it or find an alternative,” DeMont once said. “They failed to do it. I was only 16 years old. I relied on those officials to tell me what I could get, but somehow I ended up paying the price. I think it was easier to hang a 16-year-old kid out to dry than to tell the truth.”

Days after his remarkable gold medal swim, DeMont was stripped of his title, with Cooper elevated to Olympic champion status. As ugly as the situation was at that moment, it was about to get even worse. After DeMont’s urine test revealed Ephedrine in his system, US team doctors confiscated the medication DeMont was taking for his asthma. Moreover, in a hearing with IOC officials, DeMont was peppered with questions while the USA team doctors sat quietly, offering no help or protection. Simply put, DeMont was abandoned by the adults around him—those who dropped the ball in the first place and now refuse to acknowledge their role in the mess.

“It’s a huge injustice,” the US men’s coach said Peter Daland of the IOC’s decision to strip DeMont of his gold medal. “Young De Mont was robbed, robbed because of the mistakes of adults. (USOC personnel) knew about the boy’s medical record because he had it on paper. They didn’t say anything to me or his coach about it. Communications were atrocious. It is a young man who is punished when he should be applauded. He overcame asthma to win a gold medal and took nothing more than his doctor ordered.”

As the IOC weighed his case, DeMont qualified for the 1500 freestyle final. Even if his pursuit of an overturn of the 400 freestyle verdict failed, at least DeMont would have the opportunity to compete for another medal. Ultimately, that opportunity never materialized. As DeMont prepared for the 1,500 freestyle final and a chance at redemption, U.S. assistant coach Don Gambrillwith tears running down his cheeks, he approached the teenager and told him that the IOC decided he was not allowed to compete.

Reports from Munich indicate that multiple options are being considered in the DeMont case. One scenario was to allow DeMont to compete in the 1500 freestyle. Instead, the IOC went with the harsher choice and banned DeMont from the Games. DeMont left Munich devastated. In the minds of many, he had not made a mistake, but instead was let down by the officials who were supposed to provide support.

A year later, at the inaugural World Championships in Belgrade, DeMont engaged in a rematch with Cooper in the 400 freestyle and became the first man to break the four-minute barrier. DeMont was clocked at 3:58.18, with Cooper also hitting the four-minute barrier at 3:58.70. DeMont also went under the existing world record in the 1,500 freestyle, but had to settle for silver when Australia’s Stephen Holland broke an even faster time.

Photo courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After his competitive days, DeMont emerged as one of the best trainers in the world. For years, he worked together Frank Busch at the University of Arizona, where he eventually served as head coach from 2014-17. During his tenure as coach at his alma mater, DeMont led a group of NCAA champions and became known for creating a pipeline between the program and South Africa. It is DeMont who is largely credited with shaping South Africa’s 400 freestyle relay that won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics after the efforts of Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend AND Rich Neethling. DeMont served as South Africa’s coach in Athens and coached every member of that relay.

In 2001, DeMont was granted a measure of vindication when the USOC honored him at a banquet and presented him with a black leather jacket given to all 1972 Olympians. The IOC, however, has not taken steps to return the gold medal of DeMont, despite several conversations on the subject over the years.

“I don’t need any ceremony,” DeMont said. “I don’t need any noise. I just want the IOC to repair the historical record.”

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