Downfall of Rowing’s Master Class

The Berlin Wall, November 1989. The fall of the Wall meant the collapse of East Germany and East German rowing.

The fall of the Berlin Wall brought the Cold War to an end 25 years ago. This also meant the end of East German rowing. Christopher Dodd, author of The Story of World Rowing (1992), witnessed first-hand how East German rowing came tumbling down. Dodd writes:

The hubbub in the sumptuous Columbia Club abruptly changed to gasps and cheers when a steward rolled a giant TV set into the room and announced that something sensational was going on. It was Thursday, 9 November 1989 at the FISA coaches’ conference reception in Indianapolis. The assembled company watched agog as men and women set about tearing down the hated Wall in Berlin.

Wilfried Hofmann, president of the East German rowing federation and stalwart of Dynamo Berlin, was wedged in an armchair in pole position before the box. I watched his jaw drop to an unprecedented depth as his ginger complexion turned white. By breakfast time, he had vanished.

This is how the FISA hierarchy learned of momentous changes that would soon compound the federation’s internal turmoil caused by the sudden death of Thomi Keller, long-time president of FISA, days after he had been elected to a final year of office at the annual congress in Bled.

The swallowing of the Democratic Republic by Federal Germany occurred in a haste that would have been described as unseemly if the DDR could claim significant mourners. The immediate consequence for FISA was to make provision for two German teams to compete in the world championships a year hence. The two German rowing federations merged after East and West crews crossed the finish line for the last time deep in the Tasmanian forest at Lake Barrington in November.

Wilfried Hofmann (DDR President), Dimitri Semionov and Leonid Drachewski (URSS board)
1987: from left to right: URSS board members Leonid Drachewski and Dimitri Semionov, and DDR President Wilfried Hofmann. Photo: ©

I was in Indianapolis because I had just started my research for The Story of World Rowing. The collapse of the Wall made my planned visit to Germany urgent and poignant. Thus in January 1990, I found myself in Hofmann’s austere office at the German Gymnastics and Sports Association in East Berlin. It was a tidy room with a large bare desk and a glass fronted bookcase along one wall. There may have been a portrait of head of state Erich Honecker on the wall, but perhaps I’m imagining that.

My questioning was along the lines of what contribution has the DDR made to the sport, and what did the future hold? The atmosphere was bleak, made bleaker by our mutual lack of common vocabulary. The training system is no good for the new political system, he said. There will be less time for training, less money, new motivation… coaches, sportsmen and functionaries must find another way. Pause. ‘The old system is finished.’ Then Hofmann wept as he gestured to the bookcase. The whole history of DDR rowing and its achievements is in that case, he blubbed. The West Germans will destroy it.

I found a much happier scene beside the Spree at the yard of VEB boats, where a trailer from Britain was loading boats and Klaus Filter shook my hand warmly across his desk, this one also empty but for a marketing manual in English. The picture on the wall was of Che Guevara. Here was a man who already knew that what he had created in the old Pirsch yard was marketable. He took me off to a posh tearoom on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate being able to go to a posh tearoom.

At Grünau, the rowing HQ of the DDR and site of the 1936 Olympic regatta, Helmut Pohlenz relaxed in the Liebig café. He was chief doc to the DDR rowing federation and a member of FISA’s medical commission, and was pleased that he would now be able to visit his relatives in Hamburg. But his professional life was in jeopardy because the Federal Republic did not recognise East medical qualifications.

DDR flagI took the train to Leipzig (where free bananas were being distributed from lorries in the streets) and knocked on the unmarked door of the university medical laboratory to talk to its director, Dr Professor Buhl. This was sparked by a tiny news agency report in the Guardian quoting Buhl’s admittance to a doping programme – the significance being that he was the first East German in post to do so.

When I told Buhl I was from the Guardian and I wanted to interview him about doping, he told me he was very busy. I said I had four days. He said come back at five-o-clock. When I returned he took me to his home for dinner and talked freely of his laboratory’s work on the nervous system and how they were now able to give an athlete a map of how his or her body performed, and how stimulants would change that performance. He said that the laboratory never administered drugs – that was down to the coaches. Was there any research or advice on side effects? No, he said, that unfortunately wasn’t in the government’s remit. I asked him what would have happened if he refused this work. ‘I would be sent to a rural clinic as a general practitioner’, he said.

I felt sympathy for Buhl. He seemed trapped into reaching for the ‘I was only following orders’ conundrum. He came over as a high-minded scientist, who was aware that his work had been abused. When I asked what he hoped for in the new Germany, he said that his family looked forward to using the pool at the university where he worked.

The Guardian printed this scoop from the horse’s mouth. I often wonder how Buhl fared since.

While the hundreds of coaches and employees in East German rowing were contemplating their future, FISA was struggling into a new order. After Keller’s death, Denis Oswald found himself thrust into the deep end of his presidency and the new professional director, John Boultbee, was still wet behind the ears. New media and marketing commissions were set-up, and other commissions updated. The development programme turned its attention to east Europe.

In May 1990, Oswald appealed for that good old left-wing sentiment, solidarity, in Regatta, Britain’s rowing magazine. He wrote that the reduction in financial support for rowing in Eastern Europe means that if we don’t keep high standards in those countries, we will lose some variety and strength. He asked where women’s rowing would be in 1990 if it weren’t for the eastern bloc countries. ‘We’re all in the same boat, after all’, Oswald concluded.

Jurgen 1 - amend
After DDR’s collapse, one of East Germany’s most successful coaches, Jürgen Gröbler who coached 37 DDR crews to Olympic or world medals, found a new life in Great Britain as a coach for Leander Club and for British Rowing. Here in a recent taken picture. Photo: Robert Treharne Jones/Leander Club.

During Henley Regatta in 1990, the Guardian was first to report a significant sighting at Leander Club, home of Steve Redgrave and Matt Pinsent. Jürgen Gröbler and his family were being entertained by the pinkos ‘while they studied the natives before deciding to accept the post of pro coach for a salary worth millions of oestmarks,’ as Regatta magazine put it later. Thus a new life began for a man who coached 37 DDR crews to Olympic or world medals. By now incidentally, perestroika resulted in Soviet strip joining DDR strip among premium items in the rowers’ apparel market.

On the whole, Oswald’s prayers were answered. The Cold War was over and the Rowing Wall was rubble. By 1991, there were former East German coaches at work in Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, USA and Britain. Secrecy had been blown out of the water. Werner Berg, the little Stasi spy who always travelled with DDR teams, was redundant (the western press enjoyed putting technical questions to the eavesdropping Berg, knowing full well that he hadn’t a clue about rowing). Hofmann’s gloomy forecast of destruction of DDR history happily did not come about, and some years later he co-curated a marvellous exhibition of club rowing history that toured the new Germany.

RudernCoverThe February/March 1991 issue of Regatta magazine printed an obituary of DDR rowing and its achievement of 153 gold medals, 74 silvers and 42 bronzes. The last word belonged to Bruce Grainger, at that time Britain’s performance director. Grainger, who had studied under Karl Adam at Ratzeburg and had a hand in translating Dr Ernst Herberger’s DDR manual of rowing, Rudern, sat on FISA’s youth commission acting as translator for its chairman, Wilfried Hofmann.

‘It’s right to acknowledge the contributions of the East Germans over the years because they have set a tremendous standard for the sport. For the last seven or eight years crews from other countries have been able to match those standards, and I’m glad that this has happened because if we’d never met that challenge before the Berlin Wall came down we’d never have been able to turn round and say we’d done it.’

Hear, hear!

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.