9 November 2019
By Chris Dodd
On this day exactly 30 years ago, a wall collapsed and a curtain rose, and Europe’s top sporting nation vaporised. The sudden eclipse of East Germany began Jurgen Grobler’s move from Berlin Grünau to the Pink Palace in Henley-on-Thames, where he was appointed coach to Redgrave and Pinsent. Chris Dodd recalls an astonishing earthquake in the history of rowing.
On the evening of 9 November 1989 Wilfried Hofmann, the president of the East German rowing federation, was seated in front of a big television set at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis. In company with others attending FISA’s international coaches conference hosted by US Rowing, he was paralysed with incredulity at what he saw. Men and women atop the Berlin Wall were attacking it with hammers and pickaxes.
Dr Theo Körner, East Germany’s technical director, was in a similar quandary as he lay in bed at the Calvary Hospital in Canberra, Australia, having suffered deep vein thrombosis while lecturing on talent identification to the Oceania Olympic Solidarity rowing seminar.
In East Berlin the chief coach of the women’s squad, Jürgen Grobler, watched the same scene during a party for a fellow coach, and then he and his wife Angela, drove toward the Brandenburg Gate to see what was going on for themselves.
In one extraordinary evening, the German Democratic Republic vanished before their eyes, and their livelihood hung in limbo.
East Germany’s collapse came about when Günter Schabowski, the government spokesman, botched his announcement of travel visas being made available in the days following. When asked on camera when the free visa system would begin, he answered ‘this evening’, thus triggering the opening of the borders to the West. The border police were ordered to lay down their arms. By dawn on 10 November there was still a wall, but no longer a border with the Federal Republic.
Jürgen Grobler, like every East German citizen, would have been reminded from a young age in class and by the state newspaper Neues Deutschland that socialism was right and everlasting, while capitalism was corrupt and destined to end cataclysmically. Whatever he felt deep down, the high ranking coach was obliged to rub along with the Marxist-Leninist philosophy that underpinned every action of the state.
But by 1989 the state was resorting to increasingly desperate measures to stay afloat, and people were apprehensively aware of what was afoot. Soviet newspapers were suppressed because they reported President Gorbachev’s perestroika in too much detail. West Germany was invited to pay for exit visas to allow East Germans to leave. The leavers were branded as troublemakers for seeking a better life on a different path. For the GDR the sales had two benefits they transferred wealth from West to East and they got rid of the riff raff.
When the East German bubble burst, training continued toward an uncertain future. The economic system that had supported elite athletes so well persisted for a while as the country moved swiftly to re-unification with the Federal Republic. Many rowers and coaches stayed on as they looked about them for what next, while many suffered from depression. Jana Sorgers was a case in point. After stroking the quad to her fifth successive gold medal at the 1990 World Championships in Tasmania, she ‘fell into a hole’ and dropped out of rowing for two years before making a successful comeback wearing a German shirt in Atlanta in 1996.
Half of Grobler’s squad went to Tasmania – the last time crews representative of East Germany competed – and they won three golds and three bronzes. ‘Not brilliant, but acceptable’, he would say in another year, but this time the surprise was that his pair and coxless four were beaten by West German crews. The Wall had truly disintegrated.
A year before the plunge into darkness, Ian Wilson of the oar makers Concept2 (and the enormously successful Nottinghamshire County Rowing Association) was negotiating the sale of hundreds of the company’s new carbon fibre blades to Klaus Filter, the East’s equipment guru. As Filter checked every single blade with meticulous attention to detail, Wilson casually asked if there was an East German coach who might be suitable for a post at the Leander Club in Henley. Filter suggested Jürgen Grobler as the experimenter among the East German coaches, the most curious one who reads, listens and tries everything. He cannot remember if he used Grobler’s nickname, ‘Schweinsdick’, to complete the description. Wilson remembers Filter and Grobler measuring oars with 1-metre rulers, and giving them 5-metre retractable tape to aid their labours.
After the deal was struck and after the Wall was breached, several senior GDR officials and their wives, including Jürgen and Angela, were invited to the world indoor championships in Boston, Massachusetts, as guests of Concept2 (an event known then as the CRASH-B Sprints). Klaus turned up with a bagful of chunks of the Berlin Wall that he distributed as souvenirs. Wilson brought a bagful of 5-metre measuring tapes to the party.
One of the competitors in Boston was Britain’s outstanding talent, Steve Redgrave, and Wilson the matchmaker ensured that Grobler at the very least set eyes on him. What followed was an invitation to visit Henley-on-Thames that summer, where Redgrave was based at Leander Club.