An Olympic-sized Dream is born: An Elite-Level Sporting Career in the GDR, pt. I

With today marking the opening of the Rio Olympic Games, it seems an appropriate time to begin a series of posts on the sporting career of an elite athlete trained in the GDR, Ms. Kordula Striepecke, a world-class competitor in canoe slalom.

In the years that have followed the fall of the Berlin Wall the narrative that has emerged around East Germany’s sporting culture has tended to focus on the way in which the state socialist system relentlessly pursued sporting excellence, often at the expense of the health and well-being of the very athletes expected to deliver these results. In my discussions with Ms. Striepecke about her remarkable sporting career, both in the GDR and in the unified German team after 1990, I was interested to see they ways in which her experiences serve to both confirm and challenge the prevailing impressions of what the pursuit of elite sport involved in the German Democratic Republic.

I am grateful to Ms. Striepecke for her willingness to share her story with me and hope that you find it as enjoyable to read as I did to research and write.

Like dreams held by many East German citizens, the one at the centre of this week’s post was also born in front of a television set tuned to a West German channel. It was late summer 1972 and nine-year old Kordula Striepecke was transfixed by images she saw on the TV sitting in the living room of her family’s Erfurt apartment. On the screen were images of the Summer Olympics being held in neighboring West Germany, specifically, the canoe slalom event. As the competitors navigated their way through the white water course with skill and precision, a dream was born: “I immediately joined a club to start paddling and I collected every article I could find about the sport from the East German papers. And the wish to compete at an Olympic Games began to grow inside me.” (from Wendegeschichten nach 20 Jahren Wende / 20. Jahrestag des Mauerfalls by Kordula Striepecke)

Kordula Striepecke standing in front of Progress Erfurt's boat house (photo: Striepecke archive)

Kordula Striepecke standing in front of Progress Erfurt’s boat house (photo: Striepecke archive)

Kordula’s parents were supportive of their daughter’s desire to begin canoe slalom as they were enthusiastic free time paddlers themselves and so they quickly registered Kordula with the local sport club, BSG Fortschritt Erfurt (Factory Sport Collective Progress Erfurt), a sport club sponsored by the “Paul Schäfer” Shoe Factory, a standard arrangement in the GDR. Ms. Striepecke recalls these early years fondly and remembers trips to weekend competition in a Barkas van provided by the factory: “I remember that the van had an auxiliary heater, something no vehicles had in those days. At my first competition that took place in October, I fell in twice! And the driver felt sorry for all of us and threw on the heater so we didn’t have to freeze.”

Kordula soon came to the attention of local sporting officials thanks to her to hard work and clear aptitude for her demanding discipline. In 1975, she was selected to compete with the Erfurt District team in the first of her three Spartakiade, the GDR’s biannual, national youth sporting championships for Olympic disciplines. These competitions were taken very seriously as a means of preparing East Germany’s most promising young athletes for high-level international competition. Ms. Striepecke recalls:

Spartakiade were really important for us. They were like a miniature version of the Olympics. The way it worked was you would be nominated to your district team in the fall and then you would train with the team . . . They would test you to make sure that you met certain Spartakiade norms, for example in the 1500 m for the boys or 800 m for the girls. And they tested weight lifting and things like that . . . And then there would be a special training camp in the winter before the games. In off years, we didn’t have a winter camp.

Then in the summer you would get your District team track suit and your athlete I.D. just like at a big time competition . . . And at the competition itself both the athletes and the officials had to take an oath, there was even a Spartakiade flame that burned for the length of the games. They copied practically everything [from the Olympics].” (author’s interview with K. Striepecke, April 2014)

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In 1978, Kordula’s sporting performances caught the eye of trainers with the Army Sport Club (ASK), one of two which trained canoe slalom paddlers for the GDR’s national team; the dream of elite competition was coming into reach. Acceptance by the ASK would see Kordula enrol at the Sport School in Leipzig, one of more than twenty such institutions throughout the country where East German’s future sporting heroes were molded into form by highly-trained staff and trainers. After completing a number of entrance exams, medical checks and, one can reasonably assume, a thorough vetting by the Stasi, only one hurdle remained: a final interview with an army lieutenant colonel.

Kordula and her parents were sure of at least one topic that was sure to come up in their discussion with the ASK official: the family’s membership in a Lutheran church congregation, an activity usually viewed with suspicion or even hostility by GDR authorities. So, the night before they were scheduled to meet, the family sat down to discuss how to best present this information. After careful consideration, they decided to be upfront about it. There could be no doubt that the authorities were aware of their beliefs and the family was not prepared to compromise or make excuses for their faith. However, the next day at the interview, when Kordula’s father brought up the subject, he received an oddly dismissive response from the army officer: “That doesn’t mean much. After all I too was baptized. One doesn’t have to live out one’s faith actively.”

Surprised but still tense, the family left the interview to await a response, but nothing happened. “After that conversation, we didn’t hear anything, for four months. Then, after I’d written off the possibility of getting accepted, they called us in to reject me with the flimsy excuse that they couldn’t accept me because I wore glasses and they didn’t have any experience with paddlers who needed these.” Naturally, Kordula was greatly disappointed, but after the long wait, not really surprised. This would happen a few weeks later when she suddenly received word that there was a place for her in the club after all.

She would be going to Leipzig and work to realize her dream!

(After the Wende, the mysterious circumstances surrounding Kordula’s acceptance into the Sport School were cleared up : “I ran into my old trainer from the club and he told me that he had wanted to take me, but that the club bosses put him under pressure. They asked him, “Are you sure you really want to have that girl? She has that problem with her Christian background and we aren’t sure where she might not become a risk for the state. If she runs off during a competition in the West, you can kiss your job goodbye.” But despite this pressure, he said, ‘I’d like to have her on my team.'”)

School Days
Mural adorning the Leipzig Sportschule attended by Kordula Striepecke, in 1999 (photo: author).

Mural adorning the Leipzig Sportschule attended by Kordula Striepecke, in 1999 (photo: author).

Kordula quickly found her way into the rhythm of her new surroundings and responded well to what she calls the “sensitive” coaching of her new trainer. The experience at the sport school was everything Kordula had hoped it would be: “It was a very, very positive experience for me and I really made a qualitative leap forward in my sporting performance during that year.”

The more intensive training methods, including a supervised regimen of weight lifting, quickly bore fruit, but also raised some questions for Kordula as well. “There were two groups of canoeists at the school, one did slalom, the other sprint, different disciplines, but we did some of our training together, including the weight work . . . I noticed that the girls who were in the sprint group were routinely able to lift more than those of us from the more technically-reliant canoe slalom side. And this despite us have similar body types . . .”

From today’s vantage point, it seems likely that the sprint athletes, competitors in a discipline where strength is paramount, were receiving doping agents from the team doctors and trainers. “I certainly noticed,” offers Kordula Striepecke reflecting on the discrepancy in performance. “I asked myself, ‘What’s going on here?’ I also wondered if I had put myself in physical danger or made myself vulnerable to blackmail by pursuing my athletic dream.”

This confusion and concern is certainly understandable as East German sporting officials did all they could to cast a veil over the country’s systematic doping program. Athletes, often young teenagers, were given carefully calculated doses of performance enhancing drugs under medical supervision to ensure their use was not detected. The country’s highly paternalistic sporting culture demanded athletes show complete trust in the trainers, and a team doctor distributed the vitamins, medications and, in some cases, steroids. Typically, the young athletes received little or vague explanation on what they were given or were told that the performance enhancing substances they were receiving were vitamins. Indeed, the prevailing culture of the sport schools was one where asking questions was not advisable, and in this way the conspiracy of silence was maintained.

In regards to her fellow teammates, she recalls, “We were really close to each other, a ‘sworn collective’ The way it was done was our group had a long term goal, a commitment. Ours was ‘In ten years we will be world champion.’ That is, one of the five of us would be. The idea was, ‘Your team will produce the world champion in ten years time.’ It wasn’t the case that they identified one of us and said, ‘You will the world champion and not the rest of you!’ Rather that goal was something we would all work towards together.”

What Kordula didn’t know was that behind the scenes, decisions were being taken that would soon deal a blow to her dream of a career as an elite athlete.

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