In 1983 I moved to Los Angeles where I raced against many of the athletes who competed in the cycling events at 1984 Olympic Games. As a competitive athlete living in Los Angeles before, during and after the Games, I had a first-hand seat to how that Olympics transformed the city and ramped up the pressure on American athletes to win gold medals in the name of the United States.
Even before the 1984 Olympics, the pressure on cyclists to win at all costs was evident. A fellow cyclist confessed he was using steroids and told me that I was naive to think that wasn’t the case with others. Just before the Olympics, Cindy Olavarri, a promising cyclist who qualified for the first-ever women’s Olympic road race, mysteriously withdrew from the team citing “mononucleosis.” It was later revealed she had tested positive for steroids.
In the months leading up to the Olympics you couldn’t read a newspaper or watch a television commercial that didn’t admonish Team USA to win. Today we take this kind of hype for granted, but the 1984 Los Angeles Games were the first so-called corporate Olympics, meaning that athletes, coaches and sports federations now had to appease big money sponsors like Coca Cola and United Airlines.
Even with all the hype, I attended the Games and cheered until I was hoarse as American cyclists won medals. When I read about the blood doping scandal in the months following the Olympics, I felt sick to my stomach. I knew some of these athletes—cycling then, as now, is a small world. It was a betrayal that I took personally.
I retired from racing in 1988 to attend graduate school. In the 1990s I worked as a newspaper reporter and contributing editor for Women’s Sports & Fitness magazine and other sports publications. But the blood doping story was always in the back of my mind. From time to time I would tell younger cyclist about it and they would shrug their shoulders. The story meant nothing to them.
The Lance Armstrong doping scandal changed the public discussion about doping. Suddenly the whole world was focused on doping in cycling. I knew the time was right to tell the 1984 blood doping story. In 2014 I began making Tainted Blood. What I thought would be a straightforward project quickly hit a major roadblock. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to allow me to license Olympic footage. While they didn’t give a reason, I strongly suspect that they didn’t want any negative press regarding the 1984 blood doping.
The USOC and the IOC are powerful entities who exert iron fisted control over the Olympic logo and Olympic trademarks. It was a David and Goliath situation. To get around this—how do you make a movie about the Olympics without Olympic footage?—I scoured photo archives and chased down photographers for still from the 1984 Games.
I reached out to all of the cyclists who blood doped at the 1984 Games (some had died while others were unable to be located) to include them in the film. Not one of the cyclists who blood doped agreed to participate! This told me I was onto something important. If they had nothing to hide, why not tell their side of the story? I was disappointed that Eddie Borysewicz, the Polish-born, charismatic coach of the 1984 team agreed then withdrew his participation in the film.
As a journalist I know the importance of providing balance to a story. I did not want Tainted Blood to be a lopsided film. To give voice to those who declined to participate I included on-the-record quotes throughout the film.
Filming continued for two years. My interviews took me from the Snake River Valley in eastern Oregon to the packed streets of Manhattan. After a year and a half of post production, Tainted Blood premiered June 19, 2017 before a crowd of more than 100 people at Baltimore’s Handle Bar Cafe. Tainted Blood had its international premier at the Rueda Film Festival in Barcelona, Spain in October of 2017 and is streaming on Amazon.
While I received some support from crowdfunding, Tainted Blood was made with my own funds. As a first-time filmmaker I learned by doing. I hired professional crews and other professionals who helped create a film that I am immensely proud of. I’m also proud to be a member of a select group of women who make sports documentaries. While we may be small in number, we are mighty.
- Jill Yesko
(pictured on the far left in the women's cycling team picture)