The GDR recipe for sporting success: Drugs for women and children

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Kristian Gerner
Department of History, Lund University


Mike Dennis & Jonathan Grix
Sport under Communism: Behind the East German ‘Miracle’
261 sidor, inb.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2012 (Global Culture and Sport)
ISBN 978-0-230-22784-2

There was no miracle medicine. The patient died. But the myth survived and lives well as a model for sport policy today. This is the message of Mike Dennis and Jonathan Grix in their meticulously researched analysis of sport policies in the German Democratic Republic, GDR.

During the first quarter century of its existence, the Soviet vassals in charge of the GDR had to try to gain international recognition of their fiefdom as a legitimate state. Mike Dennis and Jonathan Grix argue that sport policy was crucial for this endeavour and that its significance has been neglected in previous political science and international relations research.

The authors give a detailed description of the different turns in sport politics and the conflicts within the leadership about how to secure success in international contests, especially in the Olympic Games. In 1969 the political leaders decided to invest most resources in elite sport. From now on, the aim to create new socialist man through mobilization of the whole population in mass sport became secondary to the overriding goal of promoting individual elite sports.

From 1969 on, in the run-up to the 1972 Olympic Games where the GDR would perform for the first time as a separate national team under its own national flag and under its official name the German Democratic Republic, the sport policy was geared towards securing as many medals as possible in the games. It turned out that picking talents at an early age and to focus on women were cost effective means to reach the end.

Children from the age of six became objects of the “uniform inspection and selection” (Einheitliche Sichtung and Auswahl) system. Those best suited for different sports in terms of physical characteristics and results in performance tests were sent to special Children and Youth Sports Schools.  Sixty per cent of these were boarding schools where the pupils “were in effect hermetically sealed off from wider society and mass sport” with a “work day” of eleven hours even for children seven and eight years old. When sports were divided into two tiers in 1969, those children who happened to belong in the category of non-Olympic sports “were unceremoniously thrown out and placed in regular schools.”

Women were the other special category in the hunt for success in the Olympic Games. The neglect of women’s sports in many countries meant that there was a virgin field to be sown and “a rich haul of medals” to be harvested for a state that promoted women. An additional bonus was that the success for women from the GDR would demonstrate the emancipation of women and the progressive nature of socialist society.

A second reason for the focus on women was that doping with anabolic-androgenic steroids improved especially the performance of women. In their detailed scrutiny of how the massive doping business was organized and implemented, Dennis and Grix, in a chapter aptly named “Drugs in the German ‘Doping’ Republic” come up with a revealing report to the Stasi from chief doper Manfred Höppner after the successful GDR show at the Montreal Summer Olympics  in 1976:

From our experience made so far it can be concluded that women have the greatest advantage from treatments with anabolic hormones with the respect to their performance in sports /…/ Especially high is the performance-supporting effect following the first administration of anabolic hormones, in particular with junior athletes. (89)

The sources from the Stasi archive that form the material for the analysis of the doping practice do not allow for an estimation of the administration of drugs to athletes prior to 1972. Dennis and Grix estimate that thereafter and up to 1989 a minimum of 6,000 but probably around 10,000 athletes “were administered ethically dubious and/or illegal performance-enhancing substances.” In track and field athletics, swimming and gymnastics doping with anabolic-androgenic steroids began at the age of twelve and in canoeing, rowing and some winter sports at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Stasi chief Erich Mielke, who in the book emerges as a major protagonist in the tale of sport policy in the GDR, stands out as a “committed supporter of doping.”

Although soccer was placed in the first tier in 1969, it did not become a success story for the GDR.  Dennis’s and Grix’s chapter on this sport, the internationally most glamorous and prestige-laden of all, is labelled “Football – East German Sport’s ‘Problem Child’.” Erich Mielke, the Stasi chief who was also the boss of the security police’s sport union Dynamo, wrote havoc by manipulating both clubs and individual players. Mielke ordered both the re-localisation of clubs and the re-distribution of players among clubs with the double aim of favouring Dynamo Berlin and weeding out unreliable individual players.

Successive generations of young football fans did not develop any identification with the GDR. They chose to identify with the international triumphs of the national team of West Germany on the one hand and on the other hand with their local clubs, such as teams from Leipzig and Dresden in Saxony.  Dynamo Berlin, the team of the security police in the capital, was viewed as a predator (acquiring skilful players from clubs in the province). In the gloomy picture of political regimentation of sport in the GDR, football stands out as refuge of low-keyed civil disobedience. Whereas the Communist Party attempted to boost the international reputation of the GDR, in the world of football its citizens dared to demonstrate that they did care less about their state than about their Heimat and Deutschland.

Dennis and Grix argue that the GDR example of strong state sponsoring of elite sports with a view to enhance international prestige has been emulated by democracies such as Australia and the UK. However, it is possible to argue that this is not so much an effect of emulation as a consequence of the generalized belief that success in the Olympic Games enhances the international reputation of the nation.

The authors demonstrate that there was not any question of mass sport feeding elite sports in the GDR.  Furthermore, in the final analysis they argue that “the effectiveness of elite sport as a diplomatic tool is relatively thin.” After all, the international community did not bother about the fate of the GDR in 1989. The ‘miracle’ was of no avail.

Copyright © Kristian Gerner 2012

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