31 July 2018
Tim Koch’s review of More Power – The Story of Jürgen Grobler, The Most Successful Olympic Coach of All Time by Hugh Matheson and Christopher Dodd (Harper Collins, 2018).
In an age when teenagers apparently merit biographies and (alleged) autobiographies, perhaps for the dubious achievement of being vacuous, ridiculous and/or promiscuous on reality television, the life story of a 72-year-old who has been described as ‘the most successful Olympic coach of all time’ is probably rather overdue. Thankfully, two knowledgeable, highly qualified writers, Hugh Matheson (who rowed for Britain in three Olympic Games and later became The Independent’s rowing correspondent) and Chris Dodd (the sport’s most distinguished and prolific historian who covered rowing for The Guardian for 25 years) have corrected this failing with this unauthorized – but not actively discouraged – biography of Jürgen Grobler.
More Power – The Story of Jürgen Grobler, The Most Successful Olympic Coach of All Time is the story of a coach whose crews have won at least one event at all ten of the Olympic Regattas that they took part in between 1976 and 2016. As Grobler is currently preparing for the 2020 Games, it is a story that is not yet finished. However, Matheson and Dodd chronicle his first 40 years of Olympic victories – but also look at the less happy aspects of a remarkable career.
The authors invited Grobler to be involved with the work from the start. After much deliberation, he decided that he did not wish to be involved in such a project until he has finished coaching. However, he had several ‘informal discussions’ with Matheson and Dodd and his relationship with them ‘remains cordial’.
A paragraph in chapter two (which, surprisingly, did not make it onto the book’s flyleaf or back cover) sums up the man and his career:
From his first appearance in the (East German) national coaching hierarchy (Grobler) was known to be ferociously ambitious and soon acquired the nickname ‘Schweinsdick’ … which should be translated in an almost admiring way rather like the British would say ‘Goldenballs’. Sometimes the nickname was adapted to ‘Schweine Schlau’ or ‘canny like a pig’ – again generally used affectionally. He was recognised as a man who was ‘always clever’ and who would ‘spot the opportunity and make the right decisions’ to achieve his ambitions.
Having studied sports science at university, Grobler returned to his local rowing club in Magdeburg on the Elbe river and coached one of its members, Wolfgang Güldenpfennig, to the bronze medal in the single at the 1972 Olympics. This led to him coaching gold medal-winning GDR crews at every Olympics from 1976 to 1988 (bar the Eastern Bloc boycotted 1984 Games). From 1980 to 1990 he was chief coach of the East German women’s squad.
That Jürgen took the director role for the women’s squad is attributed by some to the canny ‘Schweine Schlau’ character that realised the probability of more international medals equalled the reward from a grateful state of a higher standard of living.
When Germany was reunited in October 1990 and the East German national sports administration collapsed, Grobler moved to Britain, initially to coach Redgrave and Pinsent at Leander. He claims that ‘I wanted to leave Germany because I wanted to prove I could succeed in a different system’. He soon settled in England and showed his assimilation by dropping the umlaut in ‘Jürgen.’ GB Olympic Gold came with the pair in 1992 and 1996, with the four in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012, and with the four and the eight in 2016.
The record of Grobler’s crews shows that he has undoubtedly made the right decisions in a purely coaching context. Where his judgement has been questioned has been in relation to two aspects of his life in East Germany: his involvement in athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs (‘doping’) and his role as an informer for the GDR’s Secret Police, the Stasi. This part of the Grobler story cannot be ignored – and More Power does not.
At present, it is increasingly common to judge those who lived in a different time and place by the standards of the here and now, a supreme arrogance particularly perpetuated by the young and otherwise apparently intelligent. Matheson and Dodd make what should be an obvious point – that context is all.
More Power quotes Rudern (1976), the textbook of GDR rowing from which no deviation was tolerated. It begins with the country’s principal objects in the sport, the first listed being:
The achievement of high performances in competitive rowing… based on a wide membership, on a comprehensive and systematic basic training, and on a party and class-conscious education of the oarsman into a socialist sports personality.
The role of these ‘socialist sports personalities’ was to give credibility to the GDR’s generally failing and repressive political, economic and social system by beating their West German, other Western European, and North American equivalents in international sporting competition. East Germany was a pioneer of the use of sport as an instrument of foreign policy. If their athletes could also prove superior to other members of the international socialist brotherhood, particularly the Soviet Union, that was a bonus.
If Grobler or any of his contemporaries had resigned over the state-sponsored doping regime, the quality of life for them and their families would have been compromised deeply and quickly… (Grobler’s) mantra has been ‘You have to understand the system at the time. There was no room for disagreement’. What is rarely admitted – probably because it sounds foolish to readers in a liberal western democracy – is that most of the population of East Germany were part of the collective consciousness expressed as ‘We are the state’.
More Power does not quote this statistic, but, towards the end of the GDR, perhaps half-a-million citizens were ‘informers’, possibly rising to two million if occasional informants were included. According to his personal Stasi file, Grobler was recruited in 1975. The casualness with which this routine action was carried out is revealed by the lack of thought that went into the new informer’s code name: ‘Jürgen’.
Matheson and Dodd’s conclusions are unambiguous. On the Stasi question:
The structure of elite sport in East Germany …. (was) driven by the Ministry of State Security, known universally as the Stasi… It commanded the scarce resources and directed them where the (single ruling party) demanded. Every successful person in any walk of life was a member of the party, and every place of work and sports club had at least one informer… Grobler’s party membership, status as an informer and coaching ability were all crucial to obtaining investment and ensuring appropriate support for (his) athletes…
The two authors quote the Mail on Sunday calling Grobler’s reports to the Stasi, ‘an exercise in bureaucratic mundanity’ and Matheson has previously written that ‘it is very hard to see that anything harmful was passed on or that any damaging consequences followed…’
On the doping question:
When the doping issue became a subject for debate in the 1990s after the collapse of East Germany, Grobler at first said he did not know about it. When that became untenable he said that ‘some things were going on at the time which might not have been correct, but I can look everyone in the eye and not feel guilty.’ It is perfectly conceivable that he does not feel guilty and does not think of himself as ‘a doping coach’ … In the morality of that place and time, he did no wrong. The list of drugs that were banned was short and badly defined… (Doping) played only a small part in Grobler’s application of the best science flowing from the German College of Physical Culture in Leipzig and elsewhere.
More Power holds that drugs played only a minor part in the GDR’s domination of world rowing and details the many more important factors that led to its success, not all of them complex. For example, there was the ruthless application of very simple rules such as Rudern‘s demand that, in sculling, the left hand must be in front of and under the right.
In the Seventies and Eighties none of the major rowing nations followed such a simple policy, and consequently, their top coaches found themselves teaching fully developed scullers to change the leading and higher hand to match new partners.
In Britain and the other countries not enjoying the benefits of a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic, rowers and coaches were literally (and often pejoratively) ‘amateurs’ who had to do a day’s work before any thoughts of sport. In contrast, by the early 1970s:
East Germany had 300 professionals involved in coaching and supporting its international rowing community. They were attached to one or other of the fifteen sports centres, and were drawn up from there to train composite international crews selected from several competing centres…
The East German training plan was to row up to 13,000 km a year, which breaks down to about 40 km a day taken in two sessions, with a third session of weights in the gymnasium or cross-country skiing in the winter.
Thus, Matheson and Dodd say that it was limitless state support, full-time athletes and coaches, centralised planning and organisation, nutritional and technical advances, and scientific monitoring of performance through lactate levels – much more than doping – that made the GDR crews go fast. In Britain, the organisation of poorly funded international rowing was still a random fight between ‘private navies’ and individual theories and methods. In East Germany, ‘after each Olympic Games, the tactics for the next cycle were subjected to the full Marxist dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis…’
The chapters in More Power are based on Grobler’s Olympiads, from Munich in 1976 to Rio in 2016, with two extra chapters, “East Berlin” and “Henley-on-Thames”, separating the East German and the British years. The book allows us to be witnesses to the events in each of the four-year cycles that culminate in the Olympic Games as Grobler grapples with a multitude of challenges: losing retiring athletes and bringing on younger ones, experimenting with crew combinations, managing the personal, political and technical problems of a project with infinite variables. We see a man who, one imagines, is capable of playing multiple chess games at once. His attention to detail runs to deciding who rooms together at training camps. In the words of Andy Triggs Hodge, ‘It’s a genius at work’.
Sprinkled throughout More Power are acute observations of Grobler the coach, revealing some of the parts that make up the sum:
If the speed required to win an Olympic gold medal is 100 per cent, then all training over a measured distance can be expressed as a percentage of gold-medal time. Grobler is well known for his accuracy in predicting the expected improvement in times for each event in the four years leading up to the next Olympics…
When he growls ‘more power’ through the megaphone at his crews he is not simply calling for more kilowatts of energy but for better application of whatever strength the athlete has left…
(He) builds a separate relationship with each person in his squads and uses that leverage to push the athlete to his or her limit…
(Grobler) will always recognise the most likely talent in the squad to win Olympic gold, and he will always work out which event will give that talent the higher probability of a win. Then he will coach that crew as his own, without deflection…
Jürgen Grobler’s decision not to be involved in any biographical projects until he has finished coaching is interesting in that it suggests that he can actually envisage a time when he ceases to coach. Assuming that he has read More Power, perhaps he now regrets not giving his official blessing to this detailed (but never dull), technical (but never inaccessible) and affectionate (but never sentimental) tribute. It is a splendid achievement by the authors, Hugh Matheson and Chris Dodd, the literary equivalent of the pairing of Redgrave and Pinsent or Bond and Murray – More Power to their elbows!