When Theo Koerner, the former East German rowing coach, died in October, his obituaries noted his role as the architect of many successful rowing programs after the breakup of the former East Germany. Like a number of other Eastern-bloc coaches, Koerner moved to the West and worked to revitalize national rowing programs in Australia and Italy. But many oarsmen who had competed against German Democratic Republic (DDR) crews raised their voices in protest of the celebration of a man who had been a part of a sports program notorious for its use of performance-enhancing drugs.
One such protest came from David Lindstrom, who rowed for New Zealand in the 1970s. “We raced against the DDR from 1972 to 1978. Without the DDR in our races we would have had a world title in 1977 and an Olympic medal in 1976 [in the four]. I personally challenged Theo when he was in New Zealand after the Berlin Wall came down about drug taking, which he denied as all cheats would. The DDR do not deserve any acknowledgement of their rowing results. They were cheats. End of story.” It is important to note that besides the cheating, many athletes themselves suffered long-term health problems, including organ failure and death.
Without any evidence to the contrary, most rowers naively assumed that our sport was clean.
Olympic gold medalist Martin Cross of Great Britain says competing against the East Germans “was absolutely hellish. They had won medal after medal and I assumed at the time they just trained more and were better athletes and I was doing well just being in the same race as them.” Although no East German oarsman ever tested positive for doping, after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a huge cache of medical records was uncovered that proved the DDR had systematically doped up to 10,000 of its athletes, rowers included.
Koerner, the technical director of East German rowing (DRSV) from 1962 until 1989, was the man in charge of the program that brought the country of 17 million people 48 Olympic medals, 33 of them gold, from 1968 to 1988. Undoubtedly, there was more to the “Easties’” success than drug use; their sports system included nutrition and technical advances, and scientific monitoring of performance through lactate levels. Lindstrom recalls a conversation after Koerner had moved to the West, “Theo Koerner told me he was instructed to beat the West Germans at all costs to hold his job and as years went on ‘to beat the Western countries’ to show their political system was superior.” Should not those medals at least be doubted or come with an asterisk the way they do in “the steroids era” in baseball?
No allegations have been made that the former East German coaches introduced doping into the training programs for Western athletes. Instead, the professionalism of the DDR, which allowed for a huge volume of training, spread throughout the rowing world.
Today, in order to be competitive, indeed to win in rowing, it precludes having any meaningful job other than rowing.
When Koerner went to Australia after the Wall came down, he helped them prepare for the world championships in Tasmania in 1990. Those worlds, the first ever held in Australia, were successful and reignited what had been a slumbering program. The Aussie Oarsome Foursome won gold in the men’s heavy four to begin a string of four world championship gold medals, culminating in gold in both the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. Koerner was not the coach of those boats, but as a consultant to Australian Institute of Sport he helped engineer a major shift in training.
As Peter Antonie, Australia’s preeminent sculler throughout that era, explains, “When Koerner arrived, our training methods and program changed significantly. We began to do more volume and less intensity; our results showed that it worked.” Antonie, himself, benefited from Koerner’s training program. Although he had already been a world champion in the light single in 1986, in the 1990s with the East German’s influence, his training yielded better and better results. “In the heavy double we went from fourth at the worlds in 1989 to third in Tasmania to a gold medal in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.”
Antonie concludes that “History tells us that there was a drug factor and that was unfair, but their methods were more than that. They were better supported—cars, jobs, food—and motivated because without success they had nothing.”
Not every East German coach had great success in the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Is that because they could not win without doping or the tremendous state support? One who showed that he did not need doping is the most successful coach in the post-DDR era, Jürgen Grobler, who moved from East Germany to Great Britain to become its chief coach. In an interview with the BBC, he said: “I have to live with what went on in East Germany. I was born in the wrong place. It was not possible to walk away.” Steve Redgrave defended his coach: “I’ve known Jürgen for the seven years he’s coached me and if there was any involvement it would be the system and not the man himself to blame.”
No one wants to pillory coaches who, in a corrupt sports administration, were forced to play along with directives from higher-ups.
But for a great many rowers who had to race against doped-up opponents, the bitter taste will never go away. The great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “Olvidar es perdonar”—To forget is to forgive. Let us never forget. We should acknowledge the cheating that went on in the past and not hide our heads in the sand.