Why the East Germans were so good at rowing

The use of illegal drugs in Eastern bloc countries is well-documented, but this was far from the ONLY reason for their sporting successes, and the irony is that the many other factors that led to their dominance might well have been enough on their own.

Although most of these – state funded programmes, selection of participants for individual sports based on their anatomical and physiological suitability, otherwise-unobtainable rewards for success such as better housing, and lack of discrimination against women – were common across all the socialist regimes, East Germany’s rowing supremacy is particularly interesting because it was driven by some additional, and unique elements.

Understanding East Germany’s starting point

At the end of World War II, East Germany was a mess. Huge swathes of many towns and cities were in ruins, and industrial sites had been ravaged both by wartime bombing and de-industrialisation sanctions after the ceasefire that were designed to wipe out the country’s ability to wage war again, but in practical terms strangled its ability to get back on its feet until its Soviet masters eased back on the policy in the interests of promoting socialist values.

By the early 1960s, reconstruction was beginning to have an effect but the country was still faced with huge social problems, albeit higher up its population’s hierarchy of needs than food and shelter. National morale was still very low: the country still smarting from defeat in the war; and there were no leisure activities, and people were still too poor to create such opportunities for themselves.

Sport was the solution, and there were two strands to this: mass participation and elite programmes. The mass participation element certainly played a part in feeding the elite pipeline, but it had a value far beyond that simply in helping the population to be happier. Many people took part in non-elite sports such as bowling and orienteering which were never going to help with rebuilding East Germany’s reputation with the International community or with promoting the success of a socialist regime by winning medals at Olympic games. Even sports like rowing which did have top-level international competitions were also practiced at a ‘participation’ level with many facilities provided for recreational rowing.

The economic situation at the time also supported the development of centres of sporting excellence: with labour being in very short supply, individuals could easily relocate or change their job to one that fitted better round their training.

Sports science

Penny Chuter, the single sculler who won a rare silver medal for GB at the Women’s European Rowing Championships in 1962 before becoming one of GB’s National Coaches in 1973, says, “We knew as much about sports science as anyone else in the world, and probably more. The difference was we didn’t have the means to use it. We didn’t know any less than the East Germans. The difference was they used it. They used their socialist system to implement it all and we just didn’t.”

An example of how the East Germans put this knowledge into practice was highlighted by Richard Burnell (a rowing gold medalist from the 1948 Olympics) who wrote in the British Rowing Almanack in 1972 that at that time East Germany – whose population was about twice the size of Greater London – had about 40 professional rowing coaches whilst Britain had two.

Rowing – a strategic choice

Certain sports were, of course, chosen for the development of elite programmes, and rowing was one of these for the highly practical reason that East Germany had many lakes and rivers and as it is a largely flat country, those rivers are sufficiently slow-flowing to be ideal for rowing. The Jamaican bobsleigh team this was not.

 

The cost of East Germany’s success

Despite all of this, the East Germans did take performance-enhancing drugs, of course, and these were particularly effective when women’s international rowing was done over just 1,000m (which it was until 1985) which favoured very strong athletes and didn’t require the endurance demanded by 2,000m racing.

There was a cost to drug-taking for these athletes in later life with gender-reassignments, premature deaths and numerous health problems all widely documented. Kate Grose, a British rower who represented GB six times from 1986 to 1992 including at the 1988 Olympics, recently told Rowperfect UK [At about 21’10”] of how she saw an example of this when she visited Lucerne Regatta as a spectator in 2001. Having breakfast one day, she noticed a group of German women and quickly realised that they were East German women’s eight which won the 1988 Olympics, because one of them looked exactly as she had back then. The others, however, were all now obese and also smoking heavily, and Kate reflected that although – unlike her – they had impressive medal collections, she was likely to live a lot longer than them, which was obviously much better in the end.

Sources

Rowing in East Germany by Richard Burnell, article in the British Rowing Almanack 1972.
Sports in the GDR, Issue 3, 1968.

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