There was an air of expectancy at the Xochimilco course on the last day of rowing competition at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. It seemed that the United States was about to regain its supremacy as the top rowing nation. The 1960s had been a tough decade for American rowing, but at Xochimilco the U.S. squad had qualified a crew in each final--something no other nation had ever done. The Americans were expected to medal in several events, including the straight pair, the coxed four and the eight. By the end of racing that Saturday afternoon under the brilliant Mexican sun, a rowing powerhouse had stepped forward. But it was not the United States.
An indication of what was to be came early in the race program when the American crew considered to have the best shot at a gold medal, the straight pair of Lawrence Hough and Philip "Tony" Johnson, took to the water. Although slow off the start, they were fourth at the half-way mark, the Americans moved into the lead in the second half. In the last 500 metres Hough and Johnson, rowing in lane four, poured it on and had open water with 150 metres to go. Lurking in lane one was a crew that had been almost forgotten by the Americans. Unexpectedly, in the last 500 metres that crew made a challenge for the lead. Somehow, in the last strokes of the race, the pair of Jörg Lucke and Heinz-Jürgen Bothe of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, put on a desperate sprint. In the rarefied high-altitude air of Mexico City, it took remarkable effort. Lucke and Bothe´s finishing kick closed the open water with the Americans and then some. With 10 metres to go the two crews were even, but the East Germans had the momentum. At the finish they nipped the Americans by 0.15 of a second.
The Americans were stunned, but so were the East Germans. The GDR celebrated its first ever Olympic gold medal. Later that afternoon, a second GDR crew won the straight-four final. The crew of Frank Forberger, Dieter Grahn, Frank Ruhle and Dieter Schubert remains one of the most successful crews ever. When in 1972 the same four won their second Olympic gold medal and retired, they had been undefeated for six years and had won two world championships and two European championships. These two East German crews heralded the start of a rowing dynasty like no other, and one unlikely to be equalled. That afternoon in Mexico the GDR's coxed four added a third medal, a silver. With those three medals it was East Germany that dominated the 1968 Olympic rowing regatta.
The success of East German crews between 1965 and 1991 was phenomenal. They won 48 Olympic medals, 33 of them gold, to say nothing of their world and European championship medals. In the same period, American rowing managed just 17 Olympic medals. (The GDR boycotted the 1984 games while the US did the same at the 1980 games.) At international regattas throughout the 1970s and 80s, competitors viewed East German rowers with awe and trepidation. Then came the whispers of drug use. "As athletes, we were aware of the possibility of drugs," says an American oarswoman who raced against GDR scullers in the 1970s, "but we were more in awe of the machine."
On the water, the GDR crews and scullers were a pleasure to watch with their flawless technique and precise bladework. "There was an elegance to their rowing, yet it was powerful," says Fred Loek, who coached several scullers who went up against the East Germans. "They didn't invent anything new; they went back to basics," recalls Loek, "and they understood that mileage makes champions. They did massive mileage and paid close attention to technique, especially the bladework." East German crews rowed with a distinctive style that emphasized layback and an acutely curved back at the finish. "They developed amazing length in the water," says Loek, "the change in direction at either end was seamless. They rowed with monster rigs, heavily loaded with short inboards."
Off the water, the East German athletes generally kept to themselves, on orders from their handlers. The Stasi, the secret police that followed them about, wanted to minimise the risk of defections. East German oarsmen and oarswomen seldom attended the post-regatta get-togethers. Their white singlets with the diagonal stripes of the national colours were the most sought-after trades, and the most difficult to acquire. It has been more than 20 years since the much maligned and detested regime imploded after the fall of the Berlin Wall, yet mention "East Germany" and "rowing" in the same sentence amongst rowing people and you have an audience. The legacy of that rowing program continues to influence the sport to this day.
Behind the superb GDR crews and scullers was a system that left as little as possible to chance. Perhaps they did revolutionise rowing but attention to detail was what made GDR rowing so successful. Every aspect of rowing was studied and examined. For example, after it was learned that the Île Notre Dame rowing basin in Montreal would be shallower than FISA's (the International Rowing Association) minimum depth, the GDR's Institut fur Forschung und Entwicklung von Sportgeraten (FES) designed new eights especially for the course. The new rowing shells were successful as the East Germans won both the men's and women's eights at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. FES looked at equipment for all sports but was run by an oarsman, Klaus Filter. Up until the 1960s rowing shells had for a century more or less evolved empirically but for the scientists and engineers at FES that process was not good enough. Under the leadership of Filter, FES ran the most elaborate testing facilities in the world, including a 285-metre tank for testing rowing shells. Today, Filter still designs hulls for various rowing shell builders around the world.
The creation of the East German sports system was a decision taken at the highest level of government and it played an important political function. The Communist Party's executive committee, or Politburo, wanted nothing less than international dominance of sport. The task was assigned to the Deutsche Turn und Sportbund (DTSB), the governing sports body of the GDR. Following World War II, Germany was divided into a democratic west and a communist east. The East German government became a pawn of the Soviet Union, which opposed unification of the two Germanys. Despite the political separation, the two Germanys were forced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to field a single team at international sporting events. Throughout the 1950s and most of the 60s the much larger West German team dominated the combined team to the detriment of East German athletes. It was not until 1965 that the IOC allowed the two Germanys to field separate teams. By then the East German government viewed success in the sports arena as an effective propaganda tool in order to promote communism, to gain acceptance for itself on the world stage, and to upstage West Germany.
In order to achieve those goals, the GDR promoted a massive and unprecedented research program into all aspects of sports, including training methods, medical support, talent identification, and equipment. The majority of these efforts led to legitimate advances in sports, but there was a dark side. The medical research wandered into the murky field of drugs and doping to enhance athletic performance. However, the GDR athletes were not the first to use drugs to improve performance. It had long been known that individual athletes throughout the world took performance enhancing drugs. There were many instances throughout the 20th century, especially in endurance sports, where athletes had used some drug or other. What was different in the case of the GDR was that drug use had the full backing of the state. At first doping involved a few track and field athletes who were given various pills. The athletes were usually told that they were taking dietary supplements and vitamins.
By the time of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, drug use and doping were systematic and widespread at the elite levels of practically all GDR sports teams. The dramatic success that year of the East German women in the swimming pool was perhaps what most raised suspicions of the west. Years later, the negative health effects directly attributed to the use of steroids tragically confirmed those concerns. After the demise of the GDR, it became apparent how widespread the drug use and doping had been. The Stasi had maintained elaborate records on every athlete including their drug and doping regimes. Some of the records were deliberately destroyed in 1989, but enough survived to be used in post-unification German courts to convict various individuals. It is inconceivable that any elite level coach or administrator--including those responsible for rowing--did not know what was going on. On the other hand, not one East German athlete ever tested positive at an international competition. There is no doubt that the East German crews when compared to their competition were the best prepared.
The East Germans approached sport as no other nation had ever done before. Nothing was left to chance. Every aspect of a sport was looked into and studied. This included physiology, psychology, bio-mechanics, nutrition and equipment. The training methods developed by the East German rowing coaches, emphasising high-volume low-rate work contrasted with the intense interval training in vogue in the West for much of the 1960s and 70s. The East German coaches had solid research results to back that approach. The selecting of individuals and formation of crews was based on a sophisticated process than involved methods of analysis and testing unheard of in the West. The East Germans found that it was better to monitor training intensity and loading by using blood-lactate levels instead of heart rate and V02 max uptake levels. The East Germans studied the bio-mechanics of the sport, developed principles and then strictly applied what they had learned.
It would be misleading to portray the whole East German sports system as solely aimed at amassing the greatest number of gold medals at the Olympics and world championships. The system had another side; 'Sport for the masses' was more than just a slogan. Ernst Herberger, author of the classic rowing textbook Rudern wrote in the book's introduction that the principal objective of rowing in East Germany was "the achievement of high performance in competitive rowing for men, women, and youth, based on a wide membership, on a comprehensive and systematic basic training, and on a party and class-conscious education of the oarsman into a socialist sports personality." The words sound as if uttered by some party bureaucrat but there was a broad cross-section--a wide membership--of rowers. Despite the occasional lecturing on socialism, and the obviously dated technical sections on rigging and equipment, Rudern remains a must-read for serious students of the sport.
People of all ages, from children to seniors, were encouraged to participate in the sport of their choice. At their height in the 1980s, the various sports clubs of the GDR had more than three million members out of a population of 17 million. The DTSB supported the whole effort by training coaches--there were more than 700 full-time rowing coaches. It also organized sporting events at various levels of competition. It is important to note that the whole system had grassroots appeal. Any fees to join or support clubs were nominal. Young children were encouraged to participate in various sports in order to develop their motor and social skills. "Sport was considered a society-supporting activity," says former GDR oarsman Jahnich Hagen, "and hence was very much supported politically. It got me a few days off at school in order to go racing."
Hagen rowed in the GDR from 1975 to 1990. "I was nine years old when they found me," he says, referring to the system of talent identification ever on the lookout for a potential Olympian. "From the first day on, there was solid centralized technical coaching and fitness training. From age 12, I did five sessions per week. From ages 13 to 14, we were assessed for the sports schools," Hagen says. "I was one of the fittest but too small to be selected for the schools." Those who were accepted to the specialized sports schools had their schooling and, later, their university or work careers built around their training--the sports schools continue to operate in the unified Germany. On most days three training sessions were held and there was very little time off. Sports medicine solidly supported the training. "A common rowing technique was taught and any advances were pushed through centrally," Hagen recounts. "That meant that I could jump into a boat with someone coached by another coach 200 kilometres away and be competitive after one outing. I've done that a few times and won." East Germany did not field non-Olympic classes at international events and as a lightweight Hagen did not get the elite level support. In 1990 Hagen and his partner became the last ever GDR national champions in the lightweight double.
"The success of GDR rowing and sport in general," says Hagen, "was based on a broad selection, perfect training facilities, professional coaching for practically everybody, a solid scientific base for technique, training methods, nutrition, proper medical backup, and a quite brutal but focused selection process." That might sound familiar today for anyone trying out for a seat in a boat, but in the 1970s it was unique in its scope. At the higher levels coaches undertook a five-year degree at the Deutsche Hochschule fur Korperkultur (DHfK), the German College of Physical Culture, in Leipzig. The DHfK became the foremost centre for research in sports in the world and a model for a number of subsequent facilities around the world. The success of East German sports attracted the attention of other nations.
During the 1970s, countries with strong rowing traditions and backgrounds like Canada and Australia realised that they had been left behind. At the 1976 Olympics neither country won a rowing medal. In fact, neither country won a gold in any sport. The two countries rowing associations persisted in their use of narrowly defined amateur athletes. Sending club crews to international events was no longer enough to even reach an Olympic final. Something had to change and because of its success East Germany became the model to follow. And, this is the point where the GDR's influence began to be felt and it continues to this day, at least as far as rowing is concerned. Obviously, it was impossible to emulate the GDR system in democratic societies but to match their performance officials in other countries thought that some elements of the system could be copied.
In Canada´s case, modest government funding starting in the 1970s enabled elite athletes to spend more time training. Although some of the Canadian crews at the 1976 Olympics had been assembled from selected individuals the national team concept was in its first stages. At the same time, the Canadian rowing association set out to improve the level of coaching at all levels. This lead to the creation of a coaching certification program supported with the diffusion of technical information through the use of manuals and coaching clinics. An effort was made to promote a uniform rowing technique that would facilitate the formation of national team crews. The Canadian rowing association decided to use East German crews as models--the pair of the Landvoigt brothers, and scullers Christine Scheiblich and Joachim Dreifke. "The models were meant to be used as guiding lights," says Al Morrow, current coach of the Canadian women's national squad, "and not to be copied slavishly. The models served their purpose and eventually the manuals were updated and new models promoted." The updated manuals eventually featured Canadian stars like Derek Porter and Marnie McBean. Gradually crews came to be made up of oarsmen and oarswomen selected on the basis on their individual performance and technique.
Australia has long tradition of excellence in sport, so when that nation´s international performances declined in the 1960s and 70s, public pressure forced the government to act. A commission studied the problem and recommended the establishment of a national institute similar to the GDR´s DHfK. In 1981, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) opened its doors to provide athletes with elite-level coaching, first-class training facilities, and complete medical support. At the end of the decade, the GDR´s Dr Theo Koerner was hired for six months to help prepare the rowing team for the 1990 world championships which Australia hosted at Lake Barrington. With Korner's guidance, Australian rowing made its great leap forward. The Australians had their best results ever at a world championship regatta, winning a gold, a silver, and two bronze medals. Coincidentally, it was the last international regatta for East Germany before reunification, and they still dominated the heavyweight events, taking 11 medals.
In the 1960s and 70s, the Americans were ahead of most western countries in their methods of selecting crews for the Olympics but nowhere near what the East Germans could do. In the second half of the 1960s most US crews were made up of individuals selected on the basis of seat racing and the subjective eye of the coaching team. However, even with a large pool of mostly college oarsmen to select from, the Americans had limited success at the international regattas. Occasional testing of the American squad for VO2 uptake on clunky rowing machines was crude compared to what the East German coaches had available to them. The highlight of American rowing, and perhaps western rowing, during the 1970s was the men's eight at the 1974 World championships won by the Americans with Great Britain and New Zealand trailing. The three English-speaking nations beating the East Germans on emotion, pride and guts--not something to be discounted in sports.
Today, rowing continues to be influenced by what the East German sports system achieved. That influence is perhaps most felt in coaching and training. One of the most exciting and closest races at the 2004 Athens Olympics was the hard-fought straight fours final in which the "Pinsent Four" of Great Britain squeaked past the Canadian crew. The story for the lay media was Matthew Pinsent's fourth Olympic gold medal. However, it is interesting to note that the British crew was coached by former East German coach Jürgen Grobler. For Grobler the Athens race was his15th Olympic gold as a coach since his first at the 1972 Munich Games. Grobler had moved to Great Britain in 1991, showing up at the doorstep of Leander Boat Club where he coached the pair of Steve Redgrave and Pinsent. At first the two Englishmen were very skeptical of Grobler's methods. Using the principles and techniques developed in East Germany he had them rowing very high mileages but at low rates in order to build an solid aerobic base. Redgrave in particular grumbled, but the pair found success, culminating in the gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Grobler's success represents the continuing influence of the GDR sports machine on rowing long after the demise of the system. Late in 2004, Grobler reportedly turned down an offer from China to head its rowing program in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Considering the numbers of coaches, administrators, and athletes the GDR produced relatively few are still involved at the elite level. "Many former East German people had a hard time surviving without the whole system behind them," says Jim Joy, a veteran of the international coaching scene. "Guys like Grobler made the adjustment. The East German coaches worked within a system that supported them in their work." Obviously the best survived but without the system many of them could not continue. The reunited Germany may have reaped the most benefits of the GDR legacy. Jutta Lau headed the German women's sculling program for 24 years. Under Lau, twice an Olympic champion herself and FISA Coach of the Year in 2001, German women scullers have been the most successful in the world over the last 15 years. In early 2010, Lau took over as head coach of the Chinese women's sculling team and it will be interesting to see how that program fares.
One of the first East German coaches to come over to the west after 1990 was Harmut Buschbacher who took over as head coach of the United States women´s national team. He spent nine years with the US program before moving on to China for a couple of years. Buschbacher has now returned to Germany where he hopes to revive that nation´s rowing program after its dismal results at the Beijing Olympics. Another former East German coach, Lothar Trawiel, directs the German male scullers. Harald Jahrling was head coach of the Australian women's program until he became embroiled in the "Lay Down Sally" affair. Jahrling, twice an Olympic champion and now an Australian citizen, later spent some time coaching in Ireland and more recently in Belgium. Another East German who had great influence on a particular national rowing program was Eberhard Mund. With the fall of the Berlin Wall Mund promptly left for France where he ran the national team from 1990 to 2002. In France Mund, like Grobler in Great Britain, was faced with incredulous oarsmen who did not believe that the low-rate high-mileage formula could work. Under Mund, the French national team picked up four Olympic medals in 1996 and three in 2000. Mund's influence continues to this day.
There was always an air of secrecy behind East German rowing and some things don´t seem to change. Some of the former East German coaches continued to operate as if they were still working under the old GDR system and maintained their secretive and autocratic ways. Take for example the Konstanz Rowing Symposium, the largest rowing conference in Germany held every other year where coaches give their views on technique and training. The audiences are of mostly German speakers--Germans, Swiss and Austrians. Among the coaches who had been invited to one event was Lothar Traweil. "At one symposium some years ago he was not willing to give any secrets to coaches of other countries," says Volker Nolte, assistant professor and coach at the University of Western Ontario and a former West German national-team oarsman. The mentality of secrecy manifests itself in other ways, according to Nolte. "If you examine the official rowing magazine of the German rowing association you will not find scientific or technical articles," says Nolte, "and there haven't been since about 1990 although prior to that the magazine was for decades the leading publication for technical rowing articles."
More than ever, technical information is shared across borders, and training methods are discussed at international conferences. Coaches move about from program to program and rarely does one country outrun the rest for long. The success of the East German rowing program remains unmatched, and is unlikely to be repeated--but who knows. Yes there was a dark side to the whole system but it also produced legitimate technical and scientific advances that continue to influence rowing programs everywhere in the world. In 2003 several Canadian national team coaches including Al Morrow attended a coaches conference in China. Morrow had the opportunity to speak to the coach of the Chinese women's eight that put in a credible performance at the world championships that year, winning the B Final. When Morrow asked his host about the average age of the crew, he was told it was 21, with the stroke the youngest at 18. "What are their occupations?" Morrow asked. "Students, students of rowing," answered the Chinese coach. The oarswomen were full-time athletes fully supported by the state for the benefit of the state. "It's the closest thing to the East German system that I've seen in recent years," says Morrow, "and we're going to see the results in 2008." In fact, the rowing regatta at the Beijing Olympics must have been disappointing for the Chinese. They were fifth in the medal ranking behind Great Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States, all countries that had learned from the East German rowing program.
(Adapted from an article I wrote for the Rowing News in 2005)