August 18, 2000


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Blame it on the Aussies

John Mehaffey in London

During the 1950s inhabitants of their sun-burnt continent dominated a variety of sports, including the key Olympic discipline of swimming at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

The exploits of their athletes around the globe won Australia disproportionate attention and added to the legend of the lucky country.

East Germany were next to realise the potential of sport as a vehicle to promote international awareness of a small country. They, however, took things too far and suddenly it was no longer fun.

Horrifying evidence only last month at a court case in Berlin showed just what measures East Germany took to ensure sporting success.

Two thousand athletes a year were drugged during the 1970s, although only about 100 of these were ever potential Olympic medallists.

The legacy of the East German coaches includes chronic liver damage, genital changes, ovarian cysts, cancer and handicapped children.

Heidi Krieger, who won the 1986 European shot put title, is now Andreas Krieger, the result of a sex change after years of injections with male hormones.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics no East German won a swimming gold medal. Four years later in Montreal they won 11.

Montreal represented a sinister peak for East German sport. The battle to head the Olympic medals table after World War Two had up to that time been a straight contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Now a country of 17 million people supplanted the Americans to take second place behind their political masters.

The Olympic medals table was a small but important part of the larger global struggle between western capitalism and Soviet communism.

Nothing was sacrosant in an age where the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever present. American coaches admitted they turned to drugs when they saw Soviet athletes were clearly using steroids, developed during World War Two to counter muscle wastage.

One obscure Canadian coach was immensely impressed by the East Germans in Montreal.

Charlie Francis realised drugs were an important part of their success and resolved that he, too, would break the rules in future.

In 1988 his protege Ben Johnson broke the world record for the 100 metres in the Seoul Olympic final. He then tested positive for a steroid and athletics finally lost its innocence. The cynicism surrounding outstanding track and field achievements these days is all-pervading.

Seoul was the first Olympics attended by both the United States and the Soviet Union since Montreal. The Americans boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the Soviet Union and its allies, including East Germany, retaliated in 1984.

The final Games before the Berlin Wall fell in the following year and transformed the world saw the Soviet Union top the table with 45 golds followed by East Germany with 37 and the United States languishing in third place with 36.

By the 1992 Barcelona Games the Soviet Union had splintered and according to conventional wisdom the West had triumphed in the political and ideological war against the forces of darkness. One American academic was foolhardy enough to proclaim the end of history.

Barcelona staged a magnificent Games but did not say farewell to the traditional medal rivalries.

The Soviet Union, competing as a united team of independent states, headed the table followed by the United States with the united Germany team third.

Four years later in Atlanta Russia, competing on its own, won little more than half the American total and only six more than Germany. The Cold War and its attendant tensions were no more than a memory.

Contrary to the hopes of the idealists, nationalism has not withered on the vine since the fall of the old Soviet bloc as events in the former Yugoslavia have tragically confirmed.

Repressive regimes can still suppress and deny their athletes the chance to fulfil their potential as happened in the case of Estonian Heino Lipp.

Lipp was the finest decathlete in the world in the 1940s but was denied a chance to compete at the 1948 London Olympics because the Soviet Union, which had seized his country as war spoils, declined an invitation to compete.

He was out of favour with the authorities four years later and did not get his chance to appear on an international stage until Barcelona when, at the age of 76, he proudly carried the Estonian flag at the opening ceremony.

Sport has always reflected political and commercial realities. Merlene Ottey represented Jamaica 20 years ago in Moscow. At the age of 40 she will run again for her West Indies' birth place in Sydney.

Yet, although she is a roving ambassador for Jamaica, she has long since broken any ties, being variously based in Italy, Monaco and now Slovenia.

Ottey is an explicit example of a modern professional athlete who transcends national boundaries and becomes wealthy through physical excellence.

Because of her and her peers across a variety of sports sceptics say athletes now have closer ties with their sponsors than their countries. The concept of a corporate games with athletes representing their companies has been floated semi-seriously.

Yet national pride will always run deep, markedly in immigrant societies such as the United States and Australia, as Gail Devers confirmed on the eve of the Monaco golden league meeting on Thursday.

Devers, the finest sprinter-hurdler in the history of track and field, was denied a chance to defend her 100 metres title in Sydney because of the draconian American system which gives a place to the first three finishers from the U.S. trials only.

She bears no grudges.

"I hope the U.S. takes one, two and three," Devers said.

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