Pub quiz fans, listen up. Here’s a question that sports boffins, rock music buffs and, er, students of the latter years of East German communism will all love. What do Supertramp, Bruce Springsteen and Shakin’ Stevens have in common?
a) They were all big in the 1970s and 1980s
b) They all had an unhealthy fascination with denim, be it sleeveless vests (Springsteen), flared jeans (Supertramp), or the drainpipes and jeans jacket combo (Shaky)
c) They are all part of your current record collection
d) They were all part of East Germany’s programme to achieve global sporting dominance
If you picked answer “C”, you probably need to get out a bit more. But if you picked answer “D” you were right, strange and sinister though it may seem.
As you may have read in the last couple of days, it now seems that West Germany, as well as East, was involved in doping its athletes, giving them steroids, testosterone and amphetamines from the 1950s through to the 1970s.
Reading the reports, though, I was reminded of an equally bizarre story that we ran a few years ago, which revealed that it wasn’t just drugs that the East Germans pumped into their athletes. At the height of their attempts to prove Communism’s superiority through sporting success, they also plied them with middle of road pop hits during work-outs, apparently as a treat to help them train harder.
My former colleague, Bojan Pancevski, learned this during a tour of a once-secret sports complex outside Berlin, where athletes trained in a special underground decompression chamber to simulate the benefits of high altitude training.
It was developed as an alternative to steroid programmes, back when international doping tests were becoming more sophisticated. But athletes who trained there said that their other secret weapon was being allowed to listen to Western pop music, which was generally banned by the communist authorities at the time.
“It was quite a privilege because that kind of stuff would not be played in East Germany,” said Torsten Gutsche, 59, a multiple Olympic gold medallist in kayaking, one of nearly 100 successful Olympians who was coached there. “The idea was that we would perform better if we were happy.”
Naturally, the East German officials were still a little cautious about what they were allowed to listen to, and it does not say much for Shaky and Springsteen’s street credentials that they got the got the thumbs-up from the East German censors. So it was, though, that hits like Supertramp’s “Dreamer” and Shaky’s “This Ole House” became the unlikely motivational soundtrack to the German Democratic Republic’s bid for sporting glory.
What I can’t help wondering, though, is how much more formidable they would have been had they been able to listen to whatever rock music they wanted. How much better would all those shot-putters and weightlifters have performed if they had been able to listen to, say, rousing numbers by Metallica or Iron Maiden? (Yes, I know, but remember, the Germans are big metal fans.)
Would Heidi Krieger, the 1986 European women’s shot-put champion who later had a sex change, have thrown further if she’d trained to AC-DC? Would the GDR’s skiers and skaters have gone faster if they’d trained on Status Quo? And, given some of their past crimes in the cause of progressive rock, should Supertramp be retrospectively declared a banned substance?