Posted By Lai Perkins on October 3, 2012
An inside look at the awesome sports machine that turns out champions by the score. No one mines Olympic gold more efficiently than the East Germans. A small nation of 17 million people, they won 40 gold medals at Montreal in 1976—while the Soviet Union, with more than 15 times their population, garnered 47 and the USA, with about 12 times the population, won 34. In international competitions since then, the East Germans have continued to demonstrate that they possess the most amazingly effective national sports machine of modern times,
How do they do it? A mixture of motivation, research, generous material support, and training, training, training.
Sports are never far removed from politics in East Germany, since athletic victories are cherished as “proofs” of the communist system’s superiority. In 1952, the University for Physical Culture opened in Leipzig. Today, 8,000 of its graduates cover the republic in a fine-mesh network of teachers, coaches and sports doctors who train the promising young and keep an eye out for talent. “The only way to sports achievement,” says Professor Kurt Tittel, head of the university’s sports medicine faculty, “is through long-term commitment, and the building of high-performance athletes beginning when they are six or seven years old.”
Superior talent is winnowed out in increasingly stiff competitions at the school, local and regional levels, culminating in the great national Spartakiades every two years. These games are shrewdly managed extravaganzas, designed to shed maximum glory on the athletes and to have maximum propaganda impact on the cheering crowds. The one in July 1977 lasted a week and involved 30,00o athletes, participating in three times as many events as are normally scheduled at the Olympics.
The sports programme has wide public support. “In no other area of life in the German Democratic Republic are personal and public needs so well synchronized,” says West German journalist Willi Knecht, an expert on sports in East Germany. “Here the desire of the Communist Party, of the state and of the people harmonize.”
Selection Process. If an athlete’s talent is discovered by the age of 12 or 13, he or she 1s usually transferred to a sports school. There are some 20 of these, with a total enrolment of about 2,000. Everything is free, even if it means moving the family nearer to the school and finding the father new employment. All that is expected in return is conscientious training, no worse than average school work, and enthusiastic political activity.
These elite schools are the key to upward mobility in East Germany. Any young person admitted to them is guaranteed a first-rate education, a place in a university or in a trade of his choice if he does well and—if successful in competition—security. Besides the special schools, there are about 30 state-supported “high-performance” sports clubs (approximate total membership 9,000), reserved for the training of potential champions. Then there are the factory sports associations, most valuable in developing late-blooming talent such as weight-lifters, discus and javelin throwers.
A 1958 state directive permits employees paid time off for athletic training or competition, so the factory associations have thrived; members number about 90,000. In addition there are the sports clubs of the army and security forces—a combined membership of about 500,000.
Recently I visited the Ernst Grube Sports School in East Berlin. It is a polytechnical institute much like any other, explained Dr Wolfgang Helfrich, its director, except for the emphasis on sport and its lavishly equipped natural-science laboratories and library.
The 380 pupils train for two to three hours every day except Sunday. They use the facilities of the near-by Sports Club of Berlin, which is closed to the general public. The “club” employs 32 full-time coaches for championship training in a wide variety of sports, such as field and track, tennis, swimming, diving, weight-lifting, cycling, speed and figure skating.
Wandering through the club, I was astounded at the sophistication and variety of its equipment. A heated hall 460 feet long allows sprinters and hurdlers to train year round. There was an ice rink of professional size: a boxing hall where 50 boys at a time work out. I found volleyball and handball teams whooping and huffing in a cavernous hall of their own. In the gymnastics centre, high-bounding gymnasts were working on a special trampoline embedded in the ground and protected on all sides by foam rubber while in one corner, coaches huddled with their charges over instant-replay video machines.
Backing up the coaches is a team of doctors, psychologists, dieticians and physiotherapists equipped with electrocardiographic equipment, energy-measuring machines, ultrasonic muscle-toning equipment, an X-ray department and a complete pharmacy.
As Professor Tittel said, “We surround our high-performance athletes with the same teams of experts the Americans use when sending men into outer space.”
Critical Comrades. At the Sports University in Leipzig, I saw a notice-board with a space for Kritik. There were specific criticisms by students of deficiencies in effort and attitude of certain fellow students, often with responses from those named. Peer group pressure of that kind also plays a large part in the production of East German champions.