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Sharron Davies: “I won’t let anger define my career injustices”

From racing steroid-fuelled swimmers in the 1980s to defending fair sport for women today, Sharron Davies has shown rare courage, ambition and resilience. She tells Unfiltered how she stayed strong through constant adversity

Sharron Davies
Sharron Davies

Sharron Davies is a British former swimmer who competed internationally for more than 20 years, including three Olympics. She won a silver medal in the 400m individual medley at the 1980 Moscow Games, missing out on gold to East Germany’s Petra Schneider who later admitted doping. Since retirement she starred as Amazon in TV’s Gladiators and is a commentator for the BBC’s summer Olympic coverage. She lives in Wiltshire, England. Follow her on X.

How should a human being respond to injustice? The pain. The anger. The disbelief.

It has been 43 years since a 17-year-old Sharron Davies was denied Olympic gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics by East Germany’s steroid-enhanced Petra Schneider. The Communist nation’s notorious doping system afflicted up to 15,000 athletes – many of them innocent girls, now broken women with horrific health problems – and shattered the medal dreams of athletes worldwide. But still the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refuses to change the record books. And so, the lie lingers on: ‘Sharron Davies – Olympic silver medallist’. Has she found resolution? Can she?

“It’s quite understood now, and accepted, that we were cheated out of those medals,” reflects Davies, now 60, from her home near Bath. “We’re still working hard behind the scenes to try and get that changed so that people can be recognised. I had friends that came fourth who no one has ever heard of, behind three East Germans, and their whole lives would have been different. And those people I feel immensely sorry for. That’s real injustice.

Sharron Davies on knowing East Germany was doping

But I had lots of opportunities that came my way, whether that’s working for the BBC, whether that’s just having this platform that success gave me, so I’m grateful for that. And I don’t know that being angry or having too much remorse is a really healthy thing. I think you have to use it in the right ways to try and change things for the next generation. Or for your kids. Or for all the people that you care about. But carrying it on your back like a backpack is a really unhealthy thing.”

This cool equanimity should not be mistaken for defeatism. Her campaign for restitution continues. Schneider once offered Davies her gold medal, but she refused. Not like this. Not without official ratification. “Even though we have doses of what they took on the day, how much that improved them by, who was taking (the drugs), where, when, how, who was giving it to them, the court cases, the personal acknowledgments… we have all of this and yet nothing’s ever been done. So I think the record books for me would be more important, weirdly, than the medal.”

Davies has in recent years channelled her sense of injustice into a more urgent cause, launching an impassioned but scientifically robust campaign to protest the inclusion of trans women in female sport. It’s a delicate subject but Davies insists in her new book Unfair Play that sport must be safe, fair and inclusive – in that order. She has faced death threats and abuse, and lost work. But Davies knows how it feels to lose to testosterone. “I think my career could be absolutely sort of defined by injustices,” she says. “I can’t stand by and watch this happen again to another generation of young females who will end up losing out to something that’s unfair.”

Women whisper their support in the street. Elite female athletes tell her they’ve missed out on selection, medals and income. “They are absolutely petrified to voice their opinions, which is a disgusting situation for us to be in,” retorts Davies. Her message is simple: “You identify however you like, and you must be safe, and you must be accepted, but race with your biological sex because that’s what’s fair.”

Forever a tomboy
Davies has never lacked fight. When she was a young girl, she liked climbing trees. Then one day she fell and broke both arms, leaving her bones mangled in strange, staircase-like shapes. “I was always a tomboy as a kid and am still a tomboy now,” she says. “After a sort of a load of different things happening throughout the week, where I had to have the bones reset and goodness knows what, dad (her coach) just went: Oh, you’ve missed a week’s training. That’s not going to work, is it? So let’s go and wrap them in Tesco’s plastic bags and get you in a swimming pool… So I trained with two broken arms for three months.”

A few years later, she hurt her knee in a school running race, so she worked on her arm stroke in the pool instead. “We tied my legs together (in the pool) for three months. It might be seen as child abuse these days, but it actually really taught me what I was capable of doing. And at no stage was I in pain. And then the following year, I made the Olympic Games at 13. So whatever we were doing worked.”

Sharron Davies on her father’s influence on her early career

Sport has shaped her character in immeasurable ways. “I think sport taught me to be brave: to literally go, well, you just have to try things,” she says. “And if it doesn’t work, fair enough, you learn that doesn’t work or we adapt it. And if we’re not brave enough to try stuff, then we stay in a little box and we don’t go very far forward.”

Born on November 1, 1962, Davies grew up near Plymouth, with her dad Terry, a Navy man turned insurance broker, her mum Sheila, a housewife and civil servant, and her younger twin brothers Mark and Tony. Her competitiveness came from her dad: “He definitely pushed very, very hard.” Too hard, she thinks. But she was complicit in this quest for betterment. She has described herself as a “terrier” who just won’t let go. As a pioneering female athlete at a time of poor facilities, few role models and no Lottery funding, resilience was a necessary quality.

“You have to have that killer instinct, you have to be able to want to win really badly, and understand that you’re going to get knocked down, so you get back up, so you learn from your failures,” she explains. “I think it’s something that’s a little bit missing from our younger generation now. We’ve almost wrapped them in cotton wool. And life is quite tough. You know, on your first interview, you’re very likely not to get it, just based on numbers. So teaching our kids to be resilient is something which is really important. And sport is very good for that.”

Davies enjoyed athletics, ballet, fishing and hockey, but ever since learning to swim, aged two, she felt a strange pull towards water: the freedom; the ethereal sensation. She learnt with the Devonport Royal Swimming Association, then joined an elite squad under Ray Bickley of the Port of Plymouth Swimming Club, who transformed her into a four-stroke swimmer, before her father, a self-taught coach, took charge. She’d swim at 5-6am before school, then swim again at 9-10pm. She recalls the daily conveyor belt of food. “I spent a lot of time at the fish and chip shop, so I have to thank the fish and chip shops in Plymouth because they had a lot to do with it.”

The nature versus nurture debates fascinates her. She believes coaching, facilities, mindset and physical gifts are all vital. “I’m just the perfect shape to be a swimmer,” she admits. “I’m reasonably tall (5ft 10 but already 5ft 7in aged 13). I have a long body. I have big paddles – and that is very unattractive, but it works in the water. And if you look at animals, they get it right. So, the more you can look like a fish, the better you’re going to be able to swim. The more you can look like a cheetah, the better you’re going to be able to run.”

Her success grew from local meets, to national junior events, to senior races, before her first international honours came, aged 11, in 1974. Davies’ raw ambition is more striking given that in this era swimming was not professional. “There wasn’t that opportunity to think, well, I can make a living out of this,” she explains. “You were just doing it because you wanted to win races.” She remembers watching Mark Spitz win seven golds at the 1972 Munich Olympics and craved some of that glitter for herself. Furiously competitive, when she was beaten by her friend Liz, she swore it would never happen again. It didn’t. “It didn’t really matter who was beating me,” she says. “It was the fact that I just hated it.”

Today’s swimmers enjoy advanced sports science support, but the Davies were pioneering too. Her dad would speak to nutritionists and trainers in the Navy and consult with coaches abroad. She would lift rusty weights in the living room, using a leather pouffe as a bench. Her dad found an innovative isokinetic swim bench – a pulley-based ergometer for swimmers – which enabled her to train out of the pool.

“We were amateur in name, but not amateur in the way we were doing things,” insists Davies. She says her dad was “probably quite groundbreaking, and that was because he didn’t come up through the usual (coaching) ranks.” Terry, aged 88, is still a coach, “marching up and down a swimming pool in north London.”

Never making up the numbers
Davies was just 13 when she was selected for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. As a wide-eyed teen, she remembers watching new films on the flight, getting free make-up and wincing at the team’s frumpy uniform. Less typical was her response to her peers. Davies was struck by how few Brits were there to win. These “trippers” were just there to make up the numbers. She knew, instinctively, that she was different. “I want to come here to make finals, to win medals, to try to be the best,” she thought. She finished fifth in her heats in the 200m backstroke and found the whole occasion exhilarating. But she wanted more. “We’re not looking at being the best in the UK,” she remembers. “We’re looking at being the best in the world.”

Success didn’t come easily. She remembers the lost boyfriends, the fatigue and her inability to chat with friends about TV shows she had missed. Before one race, she discovered her cheap guesthouse was a brothel. But in 1978 she set the pool alight, winning an unprecedented seven golds at the National Long Course Championships, two golds, a silver and a bronze at the 1978 Commonwealth Games, and the Sportswriters’ Sportswoman of the Year award.

However, in global and European events she faced the Herculean task of beating testosterone. At the 1977 European Championships, she had finished third in the 400m individual medley behind two East Germans. That became the norm. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the doping system has been exposed in grim detail: athletes were given steroids over winter to build their strength and power, then weaned off before races to avoid detection. Some were doped from age eight, with tablets described as ‘vitamins.’ From 1968 to 1988, East German females – the most affected by testosterone – were utterly dominant. “I had this terrible, unfortunate era of racing East Germans all of my life,” she says. “And that was very frustrating. Knowing, and we knew, we knew categorically, that they were taking things.”

She remembers those unhappy girls with masculine bodies. “They had deep voices, Adam’s apples, poor skin, male strength. And yeah, they would just totally and utterly dominate to the extent that at European level, they won 92% of all the women’s medals throughout that period in history.”

Sharron Davies on feeling sorry for the East German athletes forced to dope

This unfairness posed a unique psychological challenge. Ahead of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, how could she stay motivated? “All I could control was my race, and me, you know, and go in there and do a personal best time,” she explains. “Hopefully break the Commonwealth record, which I did. And hopefully fight for maybe a silver medal. And it sounds a little bit defeatist, but it was more the frustration of the circumstances rather than feeling defeatist. It was always: go in and do the best thing you can. Beat as many of them as you can.”

Before the final of the 400m individual medley, Davies faced the maelstrom of emotions all Olympians endure. Time stands still. White-hot fear descends. “You’ve just spent 10, 20 years of your life preparing for this one race,” she says. “It’s going to be a defining moment probably for you for the rest of your life, and all those family, friends, coaches and physios who have made huge sacrifices and supported you. And it’s coming down to you, on this line, in this one race. And it’s got to work.”

Sharron Davies on handling Olympic final nerves

Her strategy was to shift into autopilot. “I was in that toilet right before that race going, what can I do? Where can I hide?” she admits. “But once the gun goes, you go into automatic mode. You go into all those hours and hours and hours of training that just kick in.”

Before the final she had a ritual pre-race shave-down of her legs and arms. The sensation provided the glorious illusion of freshness and speed. “Mainly, it’s not the hair, it’s the top layer of skin that you’re actually removing,” she explains. “So when you dive into the water, you get this incredible (tingling) feeling.”

Despite facing three East Germans in the final, Davies took silver finishing an absurd ten seconds behind Schneider. She set a British record of 4:46:83 which was not beaten for over two decades. Schneider’s time of 4:36:29, however, would have won gold at every Olympics until 1996, placed her on every podium until 2008, and even made the final of Tokyo 2020.

“Even though Petra Schneider smashed the world record, my last 100m freestyle was faster than hers,” notes Davies, with pride. She still remembers the 12,000 hostile fans. “And then there was little old me in lane seven. I could hear my dad clapping really loudly in the crowd. And then my favourite moment of the day, after all the drug testing et cetera, was seeing my dad and sharing my medal with him.” Davies was the only female British individual medal winner at the Games.

Making a splash
After so many sacrifices, Davies needed a break and began to explore TV work and modelling. But as swimming was an amateur sport, swimmers, unlike track and field athletes, were not permitted to earn money from their sport. Having received a £40 fee for appearing on the TV show Give Us a Clue, she fell out with the Amateur Swimming Association. Disillusioned, she kept away for eight years, until the rules changed. On her return, she won silver and bronze in relays at the 1990 Commonwealth Games and competed at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, eventually retiring in 1994, having won 22 British national titles.

In retirement many athletes succumb to drink and depression, but Davies has navigated it intelligently. She has commentated for the BBC, starred as ‘Amazon’ in the ITV show Gladiators, hosted the Big Breakfast, founded the online fitness service Sharron Davies Training, and even starred in a movie called The Optimist (1983). Davies’s mantra is that luck is where hard work meets opportunity. “I just basically said yes to so many different things and just had a go at it,” she says.

One thing she did say no to, however, was an offer of £10,000 to strip for a men’s magazine. “I spent most of my life in a swimsuit, so I don’t think an awful lot was ever left to anyone’s imagination,” she laughs. When filming Gladiators, she had to stick her outfit to her backside and other body parts: “Things were going everywhere all the time!” But that mag offer felt wrong. “The point was really that I wanted to maintain my credibility. And to do that, to me, I think, was just the final straw.”

Davies has married and divorced three times, to John Crisp, a gym manager; Olympic sprinter Derek Redmond, with whom she had two children, Elliott and Grace; and pilot Tony Kingston, with whom she had her youngest, Finley. She now has a three-year-old granddaughter, Ariya, with whom she draws and swims. “I do Grandma Day on Friday, and I love it,” she says. Ariya has noticed that granny is much faster than other grannies in the pool.

Sharron Davies on the IOC’s “disgusting” response to systematic doping

Shedding silent tears
Reflecting on her long and varied career, Davies admits in Unfair Play that she sometimes sheds a “silent tear” for her lost medals. She set 200 British records, some of which stood for 28 years, and a Commonwealth record which lasted for 18. But something is missing. “We can’t change history. We can acknowledge it maybe, and we can try to maybe reissue some medals and change the record books, which would be a really nice thing to do after all these years. But we’re never going to be able to give (me) back my day because it’s gone.”

She keeps her Olympic silver medal in a Union Jack box alongside an East German swimsuit as a symbol of the only thing that beat her: cheating. In time, a gold medal may arrive. But her silver has already changed colour. “A few Christmases ago, in fact after the 2012 Olympics, my daughter, who did track and field, and my dad took it away without me knowing and got it gold-plated and put it under the Christmas tree,” she recalls. “So when I opened it, there it was! My Olympic silver medal was now an Olympic gold medal.”

The IOC has stated that there are “too many variables” to rewrite Olympic history, and point to the ten-year statute of limitations. Why have they been so reluctant? “Culpability,” says Davies. “It’s more important to them that they kind of try to pretend that they weren’t responsible. And they were 100% responsible for not marshalling the Olympic Games properly, and not protecting that era of young girls.”

Despite her outrage, Davies feels only sympathy for her rivals. “They were treated like fodder and lab rats in an experiment, just for the political propaganda of East Germany,” she says. In Unfair Play, she recalls the poignant misery of their lives. They had facial hair and acne-scarred skin. They wore expressions of intense sadness and were herded around races like prisoners, never allowed to mix. Davies once slipped some make-up and tights to an East German girl before a race, in a silent gesture of sisterhood. “They never looked particularly happy,” she says. “They were obviously not terribly healthy and they’re certainly not healthy now.”

Sharron Davies on not harbouring anger for his career injustices

Davies had an emotional reunion with Schneider, who has suffered heart and fertility problems, for a TV documentary in 1998. “She had one little girl, I think it was, and she desperately wanted more children, but she couldn’t. When I met her, I had my daughter with me, who was very young, and she was absolutely besotted with her.”

Many East German athletes now suffer from enlarged hearts, liver damage, obesity, arthritis or insulin resistance. Davies even learned that some East German training facilities had abortion clinics, as some girls were sexually assaulted by coaches and officials. “Literally just disgusting,” she says. Some had children who were born blind or with clubfoot, as a result of the drugs. “Those are the people that I’m cross for,” rages Davies. “Those are the people that the IOC, in particular, disgustingly let down. Two groups of women: those that should have won those medals for clean sport, which they should have been fighting for, and those young East German girls who they should have been standing up for.”

The fight for fair sport
It should not surprise anybody that the girl who swam with two broken arms, competed fearlessly against doped athletes, and yet feels more pity for her rivals than for herself, has refused to quit the sporting battlefield, even in retirement. And so, Davies – now a 60-year-old grandma – has stoically endured death threats, vile abuse and reputational damage for protesting the inclusion of trans women in female events. It’s a sensitive debate, which she discusses in detail in the second part of our interview, coming soon.

But Davies cannot witness unfairness to women and do nothing. “I have to be able to look at my kids, I have to be able to look at my granddaughter and not say that I just kept my head down because it financially would be better for me to do that,” she says. “I literally couldn’t do that. I had to stand up and be counted.”

Davies’ sporting career taught her about courage, resilience and fairness. It also showed her that silence and inaction have far-reaching consequences. Most surveys suggest a silent majority agree with her, with just 16% of Britons supporting trans women’s inclusion in female sport. But few people speak out. “I just think if only all the people who agree that sports should be fair spoke out, this problem would go away very quickly,” she says. “And that’s what’s very frustrating. And it makes you realise why terrible things in society happen. Because people just stay quiet.”

Unfair Play by Sharron Davies and Craig Lord is out now

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