As Astrid Strauss stood on the blocks at the German Olympic swimming trials in Munich seven weeks ago, her former East German compatriots cheered her. But they were drowned out by the boos of former West Germans, including one who held up a banner that read: “No doping champion! Cheater go away!”
The divisive issue? Performance-enhancing drugs.
As the German swimming team was finding a middle ground 2 1/2 years after reunification, revelations that Strauss had unusually high testosterone levels in her system split the team into factions again.
Such levels of testosterone, a male hormone naturally produced by the body, are an indication of anabolic steroid use.
Strauss was suspended from the German Olympic team at the trials, took the matter to court and Thursday was advised that she would be entered in the Games provisionally, in case the court rules in her favor. A court decision is not expected before the Games, however, and without one, she will not be allowed to compete.
Sympathizers, however, believe Strauss’ excessive testosterone level is natural.
“Have you ever seen her?” German Olympian Nils Rudolph asked. “She looks a bit strange.”
Strange, to Rudolph, a former East German, means large.
“She’s really tall (6 feet 1 and 180 pounds) and strong,” he said. “She’s always been that way.”
Strauss’ testosterone level, which had not exceeded standards in earlier tests, could have been higher because she was drinking champagne and beer at a birthday party the day before she was tested. Citing a source at the University of Heidelberg, Strauss contends that alcohol can increase testosterone levels.
Such anecdotal evidence might not impress the German National Olympic Committee, which generally does not abide by court rulings.
And to many former West Germans, Strauss, a 1988 Olympic silver medalist, is a painful reminder of ill-gotten glory.
While East German women were winning 32 of a possible 38 swimming gold medals in the 1976, 1980 and 1988 Olympics--East Germany boycotted in 1984--rumors of doping were rampant, although none of the East Germans tested positive.
“It was always on everybody’s mind,” UCLA Coach Ron Ballatore said. “Their girls were big and strong, and how could they come out of nowhere? But you hated to say it.”
American Shirley Babashoff raised such questions at the 1976 Games after breaking world records in the 400- and 800-meter freestyles and still losing to East German Petra Thumer. Babashoff, who wound up with four silver medals and a relay gold, earned the nickname “Surly Shirley.”
But last fall, Babashoff and scores of swimmers and coaches were vindicated when 20 former East German coaches acknowledged that their program had included the systematic use of anabolic steroids.
The coaches had hoped to put the matter to rest, but instead they raised several questions.
Should all former East German swimmers be stripped of their Olympic medals and world records? Should those medals and records be awarded to the next “clean” swimmer? If they were innocent victims, forced to take steroids as four-time Olympic gold medalist Kornelia Ender claims, should they still be penalized?
FINA, swimming’s international governing body, is considering these issues. In February, it appointed a special commission to examine an extensive report on East German doping. Later this month, in Barcelona, the commission will discuss the implications of doping with the entire FINA bureau.
Meanwhile, some Americans are painting all East German swimmers with the same brush, even though the coaches did not identify individuals in their statement.
Perhaps those who competed in the shadow of the East Germans cannot be blamed for viewing the rise of women from other nations, including the United States, as a victory over drugs.
Certainly, that was the theme at the U.S. Olympic trials at Indianapolis in March when Jenny Thompson and Anita Nall broke world records held by East Germans.
At a news conference, Thompson said: “I think it’s a little sweeter because supposedly those records were made by steroids, and I know that Anita and I aren’t using steroids. It’s just sweet to see that those records can be broken by natural means.”
The improvement of teen-agers such as Nall, Thompson, Summer Sanders, Nicole Haislett and Janie Wagstaff, coupled with the weakening of the Germans, has fostered high hopes for the U.S. women.
But rumors of doping persist.
After unexpectedly fast times by the Chinese women at the Asian Games in September of 1990, prominent coaches from the United States, Australia and Hong Kong questioned their dramatic improvement and speculated that they are on steroids.
Yunpeng Chen, China’s national team coach, denied it, and Chinese leaders continued to deny such allegations at the 1991 World Championships and the 1991 Pan Pacific meet.
Then, shortly after the U.S. trials, Zhang Xiong, Chinese assistant coach, turned the tables, attributing the improvement of American women to steroids.
Only two swimmers, Soviet Viktor Kuznetsov and American Rick DeMont, have produced positive tests since FINA began drug testing at the Olympics, World Championships and Pan American Games in 1968.
Kuznetsov tested positive for anabolic steroids at the 1978 World Championships, and DeMont was stripped of a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics after testing positive for ephedrine, a banned substance in his asthma medication that U.S. team doctors failed to notice on his medical form.
A few other swimmers have tested positive in their native countries, including Angel Martino, who was removed from the ’88 U.S. Olympic team after testing positive for steroids. But it is difficult to know how many swimmers are using masking agents to hide steroid use.
“The problem is the cheating technology is far ahead of the detection technology,” said Dennis Pursley, U.S. national team director.
Ross Wales, secretary of FINA, favors unannounced testing.
“It would make any athlete available for testing any time, day or night, anywhere in the world,” Wales said.
Past problems linger.
“East Germany, for years, was washing their teeth in (steroids), but it is difficult to backtrack,” said Dr. Burt DePappe, secretary of the FINA medical commission. “We tried to backtrack on Rick DeMont because we felt it was not a positive. But (other FINA officials) did not want to open the door. It was too difficult.”
Pursley wants the door opened discreetly.
“I feel pretty strongly that in order to strip anyone of medals or records, undisputed proof of a violation is very important,” he said. “To me, the only thing worse than awarding a medal or a record to a cheater is taking one away from someone who legitimately earned it.”
Former USC coach Peter Daland is equally cautious.
“I personally think it’s a shame people have records they shouldn’t have, but it’s very difficult to change,” Daland said. “They better move slowly or they will open Pandora’s box and out will come all the evils of the world.”
The Germans haven’t earned much since reunification.
The decline of the German swimming empire began in January of 1991 at the World Championships in Perth, Australia.
The Germans were limited to four gold medals, one by the women. The East German women alone had won 13 at the 1986 World Championships.
Results were similar last August at the European Championships. The Germans won four medals, two by women, compared to the 14 the East German women won at the 1989 European meet.
Female sprinters Franziska VanAlmsick and Simone Osygus have improved since then, but along with Rudolph and former world record-holder Joerg Hoffman, they are the only medal contenders.
In view of the change in fortune, Rudolph dedicated his gold medal at the European Championships to his teammates.
“This medal is very important because there is a crisis in the team,” Rudolph said. “This medal will help.”
“The crisis” refers to several problems:
--Steroid admissions hanging over the former East Germans.
“It is difficult to get corporate sponsorship because of the drug scandal,” Rudolph said. “A lot of companies are taking their money out of the sport and putting it into football (soccer) and skiing.”
--Loss of government funding and, consequently, the loss of coaches, facilities and free room and board for former East Germans.
--Dramatic lifestyle changes by the former East Germans, requiring self-discipline and a shift in motivation from swimming for societal perks to swimming for personal reasons.
--Lack of a team concept, the result of two distinct camps.
According to Rudolph, the team had just begun to unite when Strauss’s positive drug test caused dissension.
“We are still talking, but you feel there is a little wall that is coming up again,” Rudolph said. “And we don’t talk about drugs.”
It took almost two years of negative monthly drug tests for Rudolph to convince his new teammates that he does not artificially enhance his performance.
Tainted by drug use, the most dominant swimming system in history easily could be written off, but that would be a mistake, says Great Britain’s coach, Terry Denison.
“We must not allow this to blind us to the fact that (East Germany) did develop an outstanding system for developing excellence,” he said.
The key, according to Denison, was the cooperative effort between education and sport.
East Germany also showed the importance of sports science. With its flume--a swimming treadmill--East German coaches analyzed stroke and biomechanics, and East German scientists tested respiratory and muscle systems. Blood and lactic acid testing were even more common.
East Germany was also a leader in flexibility and strength training and innovative competitive cycles.
“They could swim fast four times a year,” former U.S. Olympic assistant coach Paul Bergen said. “We swim fast twice a year.”
Bergen also admired the ability of the East Germans to identify talent through body typing and their view of coaching, wherein “sport master coaches” worked with beginners as well as Olympians.
“Here, we take the least experienced coaches and put them with the youngsters learning the skills,” Bergen said.
With their low coach-to-swimmer ratio and competitive training partners, East German swimmers flourished.
“If someone faltered, there was someone there to push them,” Bergen said. “They had great depth of talent.”
Bergen is in the minority, though, when he says: “I felt drugs weren’t the reason they were swimming fast. It was their strength training and competitiveness and a great response to get out of the country. The only way to get out was to go fast.”