Philip Barker

Thirty years ago, demonstrators were on the streets in Eastern Germany in protests which would eventually bring down the Government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and with it, the fall of the Berlin Wall.

These tumultuous events also set in train the collapse of arguably the most successful pound-for-pound sports machine in the world.

Its success had been greatly admired for the previous two decades, but Heinz Kadow, secretary of the soon-to-be-dissolved East German Athletics Federation expressed his concern.

"It is the end of an era. It is difficult to calculate but I am sure there are thousands of children who have been selected but are now going to be lost to us."

Very soon the scale of the most wide-ranging state-sponsored drug programme would also be revealed. Over 10,000 people had been victims in the previous 20 years.

There had been suspicions for a long time, but in 1989, access to the GDR was still tightly controlled, so evidence of systematic drug use was difficult to acquire.

Only four years before, acceptance of the GDR in world sport seemed complete when East Berlin hosted the 1985 session of the International Olympic Committee. It opened at the spectacular Schauspielhaus, which leaders insisted "symbolises the peaceful endeavours of our people".

Heinz Schobel, right, was an IOC member
Heinz Schobel, right, was an IOC member

Communist Party leader Erich Honecker told IOC members: "The GDR is a state in which the Olympic ideals are well established. Our socialist society feels closely attached to the imperishable ideas of that great champion of sport and international understanding Pierre de Coubertin. The GDR will always be on the side of those who defend the Olympic charter."

His words came at a time when there was still a "Death Strip" along the Berlin wall.

Honecker was also presented with the Olympic order in gold, the highest award in the Olympic Movement.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch later described the GDR'S Olympic success as, "A genuine example for the youth of the world and contributes intensively to the strengthening of brotherliness, comradeliness and peace all over the world".

Ice skater Katarina Witt,was probably the most instantly recognisable GDR export. Olympic champion in 1984 and 1988, she told insidethegames : "When the wall came down it was a very big life-changer. I was able to see much more of the world without asking the Government, please can I go? Can I do this project or that project? So, of course everything was much more free."

Witt grew up in Karl Marx Stadt, now Chemnitz. Multilingual and telegenic, she became a GDR poster girl.

"I was of course supported in sports which our East Germany system was developing for athletes, though I already had very fortunate luck that I was able to fulfil my dreams."

A Government booklet informed visitors that: "The GDR is seeking to realise under socialist conditions, what has been a cherished goal of humanists for centuries."

Article 25 of the East German constitution noted: "The state and society shall encourage the participation of citizens in cultural activities in cultural physical culture and sport to aid the comprehensive development of socialist personality traits.

"All citizens, young and old, should be given opportunities to engage in sport irrespective of social origin or status."

By the mid-eighties, the national sports organisation claimed 4.1 million members.

"The GDR sports miracle can be explained by very simple reasons. A modern socialist system of society, extended network to detect and promote talents, as well highly developed training methods and sports medicine."

In the years immediately following the Second World War, Germany had been divided amongst the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union.

Key athletes in the GDR success story
Key athletes in the GDR success story

In the Soviet sector, a Communist Government took hold and established a sporting structure. In 1950, East Berlin hosted its first international event, a student gathering set up in direct opposition to the Student Sport Weeks established by the International University Sport Federation (FISU).

A GDR Olympic committee had been formed, but athletes from the East did not take part in the Olympics until 1956, and even then marched with the West under a German flag emblazoned with the Olympic rings. This was a symbolic union similar to that of the two Koreas today. Whenever athletes from either Germany won gold, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from the ninth symphony was played.

Although this united front was hailed by then IOC President Avery Brundage, it was little more than a gesture.

The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 heightened hostility and distrust.

It was not until 1966 that publisher Heinz Schobel was co-opted as the first IOC member in the GDR.

Sporting meetings between the two "neighbours" were rare, but a decade before their most famous meeting at the FIFA World Cup, East also beat West in Olympic football qualifiers for 1964.

The victors went on to take part in the final tournament in Japan, where they were simply styled "Germany". They reached the semi-finals before losing to Czechoslovakia, but still came home with a bronze medal.

There was no doubting the identity of their track and field athletes in 1966 when those familiar blue vests were seen at the European Championships in Budapest.

They won eight gold medals and amongst their champions was pole vaulter, Wolfgang Nordwig, later to win Olympic gold.

By this time, East German officials had launched a youth Spartakiade - a mass sports festival which featured gymnastics displays was inaugurated in 1965. This was to "imbue young people with the Olympic spirit".

Yet political chicanery continued. European 1,500 metres record holder Jurgen May defected Westward, the world governing body ruled that he could not compete for West Germany at the 1969 European Championships. This prompted a walkout by West Germany. Many felt objections raised by the East had forced the issue.

The East excelled at the Winter Games with outstanding performers including speed skater Karin Enke, bobsled pilot Wolfgang Hoppe and ski jumper Jens Weissflog, who all returned with more than one gold medal .

A GDR stadium show with flashcards
A GDR stadium show with flashcards

In summer sports they prepared with precision. Whitewater canoeing was included in the 1972 Munich Games. The East Germans built an exact replica of the course at Zwickau. It came as little surprise when they won all four gold medals.

Although Honecker and the party apparatchiks were able to welcome home champions in a wide range of sports, it was the women's athletics team which made the haunting East German anthem "Auferstanden aus ruinen" (risen from the ruins) one of the most familiar tunes in sport.

Throughout the seventies and eighties, they dominated the European Cup for teams and also won the International Amateur Athletics Federation World Cup four times

In swimming, it was Roland Matthes who made the breakthrough. He won double gold at the Mexico and Munich Olympics, but very soon it was the women who took centre stage.

At the inaugural World Swimming Championships in 1973, Kornelia Ender won four gold medals - a feat she repeated in 1975 and at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

"Scientific preparation has helped our girls, but in the first place there has to be exceptional talent," Ender said.

Already though, suspicions were being raised. America’s 800m bronze medallist Wendy Weinberg told reporters ‘’ they’re girls alright but they are awfully big and strong for real girls’’

Ender's tour de force in women's swimming would only be eclipsed in 1988 by Kristin Otto's sensational six gold medals in Seoul.

In the summer of 1989, the GDR celebrated its 40th anniversary. The official Neues Deutschland newspaper had breathless accounts of agricultural "derring do", alongside the last domestic championships at the Jahn Stadion, the modest home of Sportclub Neubrandenburg, some five hours by train from Berlin.

This was a town which had cobbled streets and only one commercial hotel.

I was amongst very few Westerners in the stadium as presentations were made to the East German Olympic heroes from previous years.

The official programme featured local heroines Grit Breuer and Katrin Krabbe, both gold-medal winners at the 1988 World Junior Championships.

They went on to represent the GDR one last time at the 1990 European Championships in Split, but both also later served bans after taking banned substances.

The East German secret police, known as the 'Stasi', had kept files on all aspects of life in the GDR. This included doping activity within the state, and as the files were opened the scale of the operation was revealed.

Often the anabolic steroid 'Oral Turinabol' was administered in little blue pills. Athletes and swimmers were often told that these were 'vitamins'. Sometimes they were forced to sign confidentiality agreements.

The 1986 European women's discus champion Heidi Krieger later underwent gender reassignment and testified as "Andreas Krieger" when former GDR NOC President Manfred Ewald and chief doctor Manfred Hoppner were convicted of "intentional bodily harm to athletes and minors".

Hoppner subsequently made a statement to the court. "I beg those athletes who suffered ill-health to accept my apologies for this."

Ewald, described by the court as the "driving force" of the programme had written an article for the IOC’s official magazine Olympic Review back in the regime’s heyday.

"The Olympic idea is in good hands in the GDR. We consider it a major concern of ours to persuade the vast majority of people of the benefits of regular sporting activities. Special attention is being given to sport amongst children and young people."