altBy Philip Barker - 5 June 2009

Their sports machine was still in full cry. Pound for pound, the German Democratic Republic dominated world athletics. Yet many in the west questioned the mysteries of their methods conducted behind firmly guarded locked doors.

So a chance to see them competing in their own back yard was not to be missed.



It was the first year of the pan-European sports channel Eurosport. Head of programmes Adrian Metcalfe had arranged with East German television permission to transmit highlights of the event, and I was to collect daily tapes together with as much information on events and the participants as possible.


First port of call was the East German mission for a visa. There, a humourless Dolf Lundgren lookalike stamped my passport. Before being deemed ready to enter the glorious GDR, there was an information handout to digest.

“It was no miracle that brought about the successful development of sport in the GDR,” it said “These results are due to our socialist system and policy towards young people which offers them every opportunity to develop.”

It omitted to say that they also offered them little blue pills from a State-owned pharmaceutical company, or that the country bankrolled a doping programme, overseen by its secret police, which would have a devastating impact on the lives of the young people who took the drugs (and in many cases, eventually on their children, too).

I headed to the small northern town of Neubrandenburg for the championships. Many of the roads were cobbled. The only cars were Trabants and the slightly more sophisticated Wartburg, based on a not-very-good 1970s Renault.

altMost eye catching of all the athletes competing was the sprinter, Katrin Krabbe (pictured), tall and blonde and certain to become a pin-up throughout the GDR and even beyond.


Before the meeting was over, they made a presentation to retiring athletes. Many of their achievements would later be tainted by revelations of state sponsored doping.

Discus thrower Ilke Wyludda was just starting her career at senior level but she also picked up a gong: “Der Ehrenpreise des General Sekretars des ZK und SED”. Or, more explicitly in English, The Erich Honecker Prize.

It was the last time it would ever be awarded. In October that year demonstrations showed just how many Germans hated their “socialist paradise”. Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear that the Soviet Union would not stand in the way and soon Party Secretary Honecker was swept from power.

Within a few days, the Wall that Honecker had had built was gone too. Soon, that notorious national acronym “DDR” would vanish from world sport, along with the anthem which had become such a hauntingly familiar soundtrack in sport in less than 30 years. International sport would never be the same.


This is an abridged version of an article written by Philip Barker, a sports broadcaster and Olympian historian, that first appeared on the website of the Sports Journalists' Association. The full article can be read here.


A great piece that captures the period perfectly. I remember
travelling to GDR many times during this period and it was always
like starring in your own Len Deighton novel! Well done Philip, a
great piece.
By GDR fan

8 June 2009 at 13:03pm