The fall of communism in Eastern Europe at once marked the end of a sordid, even tragic chapter in international athletic competition and opened a world of opportunity that helped change the face of American sports.
A flood of talented athletes free to emigrate, compete against the best and earn millions of dollars radically altered boxing, hockey, tennis and other professional sports in the U.S. “It was almost as if every fighter or anyone who ever put on gloves ran through an opening,” boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar said. “They just ran.”
They skated, too. Unlike Sergei Fedorov, his former Washington Capitals teammate and a fellow Russian who daringly defected during the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle, a player like Alex Ovechkin could achieve NHL stardom at no risk to his or his family’s personal safety.
In a scenario once considered unthinkable, NBA owners are considering a bid by a Russian billionaire (imagine that) to buy 80 percent of the New Jersey Nets. That prompted Commissioner David Stern to joke to reporters, “The NBA will not go red on my watch. Yes, Mikhail Prokhorov is a Russian, but he’s no communist or socialist. Heck, he even paid for dinner last night.”
But what happened before 1989 was no laughing matter and still clouds everything that came afterward. About 10,000 East German athletes were subjected to a mandatory, state-run system of doping that produced dozens of Olympic gold medals. It also caused an ethical scandal of global proportions, widespread moral outrage and dire health issues that remain to this day.
Other communist countries sent a sizable number of chemically altered athletes into competition, but East Germany was where the practice not only was commonplace, but institutionalized and, in most cases, mandatory.
“It’s a real sad story,” said Uta Balbier, a research fellow at the German Historical Institute. “A horrible and sad story. It started when they were kids. They had no choice. They were told they were taking vitamins.”
But it had its desired effect. During the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, East German athletes won 40 gold medals and 90 medals in all. At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the unified German team won 16 gold medals, 41 total.
Although the East German doping machine sputtered to a halt after the Berlin Wall fell, some of the effects were permanent. In addition to the moral implications and performances forever tainted, hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes suffered physical and psychological problems from injections of performance-enhancing drugs. Some even passed birth defects along to their children. Cash compensation to 167 athletes only scratched the surface.
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Wendy Boglioli was there in Montreal, a 21-year-old U.S. swimmer. She got a firsthand view of what the East Germans were up to, and it literally wasn’t pretty.
“They were huge,” she said of the women swimmers. “They had beards. They were not just a tenth of a second faster, they were a full body length faster. … When [we] heard voices coming from their locker room, we thought they it was the men’s locker room.”
The East German women, who failed to win a gold medal four years earlier in Munich, took 11 of a possible 13 golds. One they did not win was captured by Ms. Boglioli and her three U.S. teammates in the 4x100 freestyle relay. “I think that showed the world it could be done the right way,” she said.
When Ms. Boglioli, teammate Shirley Babashoff and others voiced their suspicions and concerns, they were branded as sore losers. Vindication came only when the files were opened several years later, proving their allegations. In 2007, Ms. Boglioli went back to Germany as part of a documentary called “Doping for Gold.” Some of what she saw brought her to tears.
“Health issues beyond belief,” she said. “Cancers — odd cancers, not like ovarian cancers — [and] strokes. We heard of deformities in children, other things. … These women were all victims, without a doubt. It was a horrific thing that happened to them.”
Drugs did not entirely fuel the athletic successes of the Eastern bloc countries. The abuses reflected a mind-set in which sports, even without cheating, formed an integral part of politics and nationalistic fervor, a means of achieving recognition throughout the world without resorting to bluster or military threats. Writer James Riordan calls it “the physical culture.” Facilities were first-rate, training intense. That also changed.
“The Soviet army no longer gives housing to athletes,” Fordham professor Jonathan Sanders said. “Where sports provided an outlet for the big Red machine, now there’s no big Red machine.”
Mr. Sanders, who spent considerable time in the Soviet Union as a television journalist, said sport remains important and that athletes still take great pride in playing for their country. But motivations have shifted.
“The reasons there were so many great skaters have disappeared,” he said. “There are people who want to have the glamorous life abroad. They want girls. … A lot of [Russian] athletes [in the U.S.] support their families back home. They have a desire for things and openness and contacts. They don’t have to bribe anyone to get a DSL line or broadband. It’s a contrasting experience.”
• Bob Cohn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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