The East Germany sports system: image and reality



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Texas Tech University


In its short-lived history of 41 years (1949-1990) the German Democratic Republic produced the world's most successful sports system in modem history. Sports in this country became an instrument of pohtics as the Cold War polarized Eastem and Western Blocs, and the iron curtain was fortified with concrete barriers, minefields and barbed wire. The East German athletes were called upon to serve as missionaries, embodying the "socialist personaUty," thus validating the superiority of "socialism" over capitaUsm by winning medals. While many athletes did not believe in the superiority of the GDR's variety of socialism or the Marxist-Leninist teachings with which they were thoroughly indoctrinated, their athletic performance surpassed that of athletes from countries ten and twelve times larger in population.

In the post Wall years, many questions arose as to the true nature of the success story of this sports superpower. Accusations were made that the entire success of this sport phenomenon could be ascribed solely to an ostensible "state-ordered, systematic and universal" usage of illegal performance-enhancing dmgs. The dispute as to how much and to what degree athletes received such illicit substances took center stage during trials held in Berlin. These trials were to investigate coaches and physicians who ostensibly administered steroids to unwitting minors without the knowledge or consent of the children's parents.

At the heart of this debate taken up by the press, among historians and in the courtroom, stood the athletes. The athletes present a decidedly different view than the typically negative one most frequently depicted for the public-at-Iarge. Testimonies of athletes in both the Berlin trials and for this dissertation reveal surprisingly positive attitudes towards a sports program that is unceasingly vilified in the public eye.

The GDR sports system has never been examined to this extent in the English language. The primary documents used, chiefly from the Stiftung Archivfur Partei und Massenorganisationen der DDR, have never been made accessible to the public until recent years. This dissertation comprises a comprehensive and thorough overview of the history and chronology of the political and sporting events of the GDR sports system. It includes twenty interviews with athletes, coaches, a biomechanist and the former State Secretary for Sports and Physical Culture. It is a consideration of the behind-the-scenes story and the impressions of the chief role-players who experienced it.