Impressive prosopography of “the most successful Olympic coach of all time”

Göran R Buckhorn [1]
Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, CT

Hugh Matheson & Christopher Dodd
More Power: The story of Jurgen Grobler, the most successful Olympic coach of all time
265 pages, hardcover, ill.
New York: HarperCollins Publishers 2018
ISBN 978-0-008-21780-8

The subtitle of Hugh Matheson and Christopher Dodd’s brilliant rowing biography, ‘The story of Jurgen Grobler, the most successful Olympic coach of all time’ (my italicization) is a rather bold statement. Surely, there have been many coaches in different sports who have carried their individual sportsman or -woman, or teams for that matter, to Olympic shining heights of medals, fame and glory.

However, after having read the 265 pages of the well-written More Power: The story of Jurgen Grobler, the most successful Olympic coach of all time, which was published by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in 2018, I join the line of rowers and rowing coaches who praise Jurgen Grobler as the greatest of them all. As it is now, Grobler’s coaching has rendered his crews 12 Olympic gold medals at 10 games – four for his old home country East Germany (or Deutsche Demokratische Republik, DDR) and eight for British crews. There probably would have been more medals, but the DDR was among the Eastern Bloc countries that boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The tally of golds will for sure exceed 12, as 72-year-old Grobler is far from done, now coaching British rowers for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

Presenting this story of the mastermind of rowing coaches are two of the most prominent journalists and writers in the sport of rowing: Hugh Matheson and Christopher Dodd. As an active rower, Matheson competed at three Olympic Games, in 1972, 1976 and 1980, winning a silver medal in the eights at the 1976 Games. Two years earlier, he had become a silver medallist in the same boat class at the World Championships. After his rowing career had ended, Matheson successfully coached crews at World level for more than two decades. He followed this up by becoming the rowing correspondent at The Independent newspaper in London and a rowing commentator on British Eurosport and for the International Rowing Federation, FISA, nowadays also known as World Rowing.

Although Dodd rowed at school, he quit the sport when he became editor of the student newspaper at Nottingham University. Later, this led to a job at The Guardian newspaper in London where he began writing about rowing in 1970, first about the University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge and Henley Royal Regatta, one of the most renowned regattas in the world, which was followed by covering World Championships and Olympic regattas. He was the founder and editor of Regatta, the Amateur Rowing Association, ARA’s magazine, as well as FISA’s World Rowing magazine. He is the co-founder of the River & Rowing Museum in Henley, where he has curated a string of exhibitions; in 2018, the museum celebrated its 20th anniversary. More Power is his tenth book on rowing.

At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, which was the first Games where the two German states competed as separate teams, DDR ended up on a fifth-place total, with two gold medals and one silver in rowing.

From the beginning, this book was to be written with the blessing of the object himself, but at their first meeting to discuss the book, Grobler informed the authors that he decided not to cooperate with them, instead waiting until he had retired from coaching. Of course, this came as a big blow to the biographers – losing the consent of the person you are to write about is a disaster – but throughout the work with the biography, the three had ‘informal discussions’ in the most cordial manners in the bar of Leander Club in Henley. Maybe Grobler, who is a private man, realised that Matheson and Dodd were going to write the book with or without his help, so he did answer some factual questions. Though, there is the supposition that he was afraid that the ‘doping question’ was going to be brought up. Nevertheless, there were plenty of oarsmen who were more than willing to talk about Grobler as their coach and medal-maker. Both Matheson and Dodd had also followed Grobler’s career and interviewed him for newspapers and magazines ever since he first stepped on British soil in January 1991.

Jürgen Grobler, who was born in 1946 in Magdeburg on the Elbe River (located in the then DDR), studied sport science at Leipzig University. After he had graduated in 1970, Grobler returned to his rowing club in Magdeburg, where he coached fellow club member, Wolfgang Güldenpfennig, in the single sculls for the 1972 Olympic Games.

DDR’s Politbüro had early on realised that sport was a branch which could be used in their propaganda. At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, which was the first Games where the two German states competed as separate teams, DDR ended up on a fifth-place total, with two gold medals and one silver in rowing. The DDR plan for the 1972 Munich Olympics was to beat West Germany in the total ranking, which also happened – DDR placed third after the Soviet Union and USA, with the host nation in fourth place. At the Olympic regatta, DDR took seven medals, including a bronze for Grobler’s protégé Güldenpfennig. DDR continued to show dominance in different sports arenas, not only beating western countries; licking big brother Soviet Union was an extra icing on the cake. After the 1972 Olympics, Grobler coached Olympic DDR champions at every Games between 1976 and 1988, except the Eastern Bloc boycotted Games in Los Angeles. He was the head coach for the DDR women’s squad from 1980 to 1990.

The 13 chapters in More Power follow Grobler’s whole coaching career from 1972 Munich to 2016 Rio Games. There are two extra chapters, “East Berlin” and “Henley-on-Thames”, and an epilogue on the World Championships in Sarasota, Florida, in 2018 as well. Added are also two appendixes about ‘the Stasi papers’ and a list of all of the Olympic gold medallists coached by Grobler.

Matheson/Dodd do not hesitate to bring up a couple of hard questions, which are bound to come up in a book about an East German sports coach. Did Grobler have his DDR athletes use performance-enhancing drugs, doping, or as the biographers call them, ‘the little blue pills’? The institute where he had been a student was the ‘mothership’ of the East German sport doping programme, the authors write. With a strictly controlled system coming from the top, the Politbüro, Grobler and his fellow students at Leipzig University had no choice but to provide the blue pills. ‘[T]he option of a dignified resignation and exit from their career path was denied. If Grobler or any of his contemporaries had resigned over the state-sponsored doping regime, the quality of life for them and their families would have been compromised deeply and quickly. They could have been convicted and imprisoned for open conflict with the “vanguard of the people” […] they would have found that housing and work were denied them,’ Matheson/Dodd write.

Even in the opening page of the detailed textbook on rowing, Rudern, published in DDR by Sportverlag Berlin in 1977, it states that ‘the principal objectives of the sport of rowing in the GDR [DDR] are: The achievement of high performances in competitive rowing for men, women and youths, based on a wide membership, on a comprehensive and systematic training, and on a party and class-conscious education of the oarsman into a socialist sports personality.’

On this matter, Grobler has said: ‘You have to understand the system at that time. There was no room for disagreement.’

On 9 November 1989, ‘the system’ collapsed when people literally hacked down the Berlin Wall. Suddenly, the Grobler family’s livelihood hung in limbo. However, with the downfall of DDR, doors opened for East German coaches, who could now take jobs in other countries. Leander Club, the oldest and most prestigious rowing club in the world, located in Henley, approached Grobler about coaching their members, including two of the leading names in rowing at the time, Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent. Christopher Dodd, working for The Guardian, was the one who broke the news about Leander’s new coach after spotting him, Redgrave and the club’s captain, Ivor Lloyd, chatting at Leander, or as it is also known ‘the Pink Palace’ (after the club’s colour, cerise) at the 1990 Henley Royal Regatta.

Still gasping for air, Redgrave uttered: ‘Anyone sees me go anywhere near a boat, you’ve got my permission to shoot me.’

At the Leander ‘job interview’ nothing was asked about performance-enhancing drugs. Nor did the question come up when Grobler signed up as ‘technical advisor’ to ARA (nowadays called British Rowing).

In a comment about moving to Henley and Leander in January 1991, Grobler said that ‘I wanted to leave Germany because I wanted to prove I could succeed in a different system’. Living in Britain, he soon lost the umlaut in ‘Jürgen.’

It is worth mentioning that Grobler was not the first rowing coach who came from behind the Iron Curtain to settle in Britain. Already in 1969, the Czechoslovakian coach Bohumil ‘Bob’ Janoušek – Olympic bronze medallist in the Czech eights in 1960 and 1964 – arrived in London to coach the British national teams after the country’s rowing had suffered a two-decade-long ‘down period’. Janoušek could not speak any English when he arrived, which lead to some comical word exchanges. After the crews’ first international regatta, when it did not go well for the British, Janoušek said in his broken English: ‘Keep calm guys, nobody expects you to win – you are bloody English. The English never win anything.’ Dodd tells the story about Janoušek and British rowing between 1969 and 1976 in his splendid book Pieces of Eight: Bob Janoušek and his Olympians (2012). One of Janoušek’s oarsmen was a certain Hugh Matheson. After 1976, Janoušek turned to building boats.

In the DDR, Grobler had his crews row 13,000 km a year (40 km a day divided in two sessions). Leander oarsmen Redgrave (with two Olympic gold medals under his belt) and Pinsent (yet to become an Olympic champion) were willing to undergo a hard training regime from the club’s first professional coach to reach the highest spot on the medal podium at an Olympic event. And they did. Racing in the coxless pair, Redgrave and Pinsent became Olympic champions in 1992 and 1996. It was at the Games in Atlanta that the British duo won by less than a second over Australia. Totally exhausted, they rowed towards the dock for the medal ceremony, passing the television dock where reporters from the media were eager to get a quick word from the champions. Still gasping for air, Redgrave uttered: ‘Anyone sees me go anywhere near a boat, you’ve got my permission to shoot me.’

British Olympic sport was at an all-time low at Atlanta: Redgrave and Pinsent’s medal was the only gold for Britain at these Games.

Despite Redgrave’s ‘retirement comment’ at the Games, at the end of 1996 Redgrave told Grobler that he was ready to carry on to Sydney towards his fifth Olympic gold. Grobler told Redgrave that his days in the pair were over, the boat class to aim for at the 2000 Games was the coxless four – if he made the cut.

Some good things happened: it was decided that funds from the state National Lottery set up by John Major’s government in 1993 could go to Olympic sports. It was almost like the DDR model, ‘win gold medals and the money will follow,’ Matheson/Dodd write. Redgrave/Pinsent also received £1m in sponsorship from a company to see them through the Olympiad. ARA and Leander Club also received money from the Sports Lottery Fund. Things were looking up…

But then hell broke loose: Jurgen Grobler’s Stasi file emerged. Had he been spying for the DDR secret police, was he an informer? In a comment, Grobler – with the unimaginative code name ‘Jürgen’ – told a newspaper: ‘It was my job to bring in gold medals, but to do that I had to be a diplomat in a GDR [DDR] tracksuit.’

There is one more year to the Olympic Games in 2020, and Grobler has not slowed down. British oarsmen put their life on hold to be able to have a go at an Olympic medal.

Then the doping question came up. Being harassed by the media, Grobler kept his head down. ARA, which now was his employer, also got slammed with questions of how much they knew. Grobler’s oarsmen stood up for him and so did some of the British rowers who had raced against Eastern Bloc crews and who had lost to the ‘blue pill’-taking oarsmen. Martin Cross, who had rowed with Redgrave at the 1984 Olympics in the coxed four that took the gold medal, wrote ‘[…] it is easy for us in the West to moralise about the choices athletes or coaches “should” have made when we did not live in the grip of a communist regime.’

By 1999, the Berlin prosecutor’s office was conducting inquires. No charges were brought against Grobler.

At the 2000 Olympics, Grobler’s coxless four included Matthew Pinsent, Tim Foster, Steve Redgrave and James Cracknell. Yes, they did win but by less than four tenths of a second. Redgrave, at age 38, became historic by winning his fifth consecutive gold – no athlete had ever achieved this in an endurance sport. Redgrave was knighted for his services to rowing the following year.

Grobler’s crews continued to take Olympic gold medals. Pinsent took his fourth Olympic gold in Athens 2004, in the coxless four, with Cracknell in the crew. And, yes, afterwards, Pinsent received a knighthood for his services to rowing.

Right now, Cracknell, age 46, is studying for a Master’s degree at Cambridge and was named in the university’s crew that took on Oxford in the famous 6.8 km-long boat race on the River Thames in London on 7 April. Cambridge won. Cracknell was the oldest competitor in this race’s 190-year-old history. He has also rowed across the Atlantic in a two-man boat. While it is not required, it is obvious that certain madness for the sport of rowing will help you go a long way.

For the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics, new rowers stepped up to the plate, following Grobler’s plans and doing whatever it took to win. He never tells his rowers to work harder; instead he has sense for knowing when to push them and when not to. He has the knack of preparation, and nothing is left to chance, down to who is sharing a room with whom at a training camp or regatta. About his oarsmen, who all seem to admire him, Matheson/Dodd write: ‘They have peaked at the right moment of the right hour on the right day in the right place’.

Though, training for years for one race seems nerve-racking. ‘Four years’ work distilled into six minutes,’ as Constantine Louloudis, stroke of the British eight that took the Olympic gold on Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio, put it. This gold medal was a first for Grobler in the men’s eights.

There is one more year to the Olympic Games in 2020, and Grobler has not slowed down. British oarsmen put their life on hold to be able to have a go at an Olympic medal. If their coach is Jurgen Grobler, they have a good chance to end up with a medal of the highest denomination.

Hugh Matheson and Christopher Dodd have done a superb job of capturing the life of Jurgen Grobler as a coach and a man who leads rowers to ultimate heights. The authors’ knowledge of the sport offers a deep insight into how it is to be an elite rower who is racing down the 2,000-metre course to the finish line, maybe to get a medal. When Grobler is ready to tell his authorized version of his life from living under a totalitarian regime to drinking Pimm’s in the Pink Palace during Henley Royal, let us hope he turns to Matheson and Dodd, who have already paved the way for a successful Grobler memoir in the future.

Copyright © Göran R Buckhorn 2019

[1] Göran R Buckhorn is the editor of Mystic Seaport Museum Magazine. He is a former president of Malmö Roddklubb, Sweden, and the founder and editor of the award-winning rowing history website Hear The Boat Sing (HTBS), which celebrated its 10th anniversary on 12 March 2019.
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