The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

News of the past

From Reuters: "Documents show systematic doping in Czechoslovakia"
Secret documents show Communist Czechoslovakia systematically and officially administered steroids and other illegal substances to athletes, including former world champion discus thrower Imrich Bugar.

The documents, copies of which were obtained by Reuters from the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, which first uncovered them, show doctors supplied banned substances to athletes through the 1980s, when Czechoslovakia had some of its greatest sporting successes.

Coaches and high-ranking sports and government officials also had knowledge of the programme, part of a Cold War campaign to show supremacy over the West, the documents showed.
This is hardly surprising. It was long suspected that all of the Eastern Bloc totalitarian regimes had systematic doping programs. Detailed documentation on East Germany came out in the early nineties. It was always suspected elsewhere, but now we have proof on athletes such as this one:
Yes, this is a woman. It's Jarmila Kratochvilova, who still holds the 800 meters World Record of 1:53.28.

By the mid-to-late 1960s, the worry of immediate and total nuclear annihilation was muted a bit, and the Cold War turned to sports as a venue for fierce competition. These doping programs were part of it--and while the government stayed out of it in the West, sports officials in the democratic capitalist countries certainly covered up a good deal of drug use as well. Still, they were far behind their Communist adversaries on this front.

It's generally assumed that putting such massive efforts into sports was done to make these totalitarian regimes look better in Western eyes. I think these assumptions are dead wrong. A year ago I read Thrown Free: How the East German Sports Machine Molded, Trained, and Broke an Olympic Hero and How He Won His Fight for Freedom, a book about East German discus thrower Wolfgang Schmidt. It was a tremendously frightening book, as I finally got an understandable idea of what life under totalitarianism would be like. I also recognized some things about life in the United States that I do not like. It also was a sports-related companion to heavier reading like that of George Orwell or Noam Chomsky.

In short, I think the Eastern Bloc used sporting success to subdue their own population. I also believe the West did and does the same, just not as well. In 1996 the Olympic torch relay came through my small college town. As the runner came down Main Street, some of the people I was with spontaneously burst out in cheers of "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" I barely even thought it was strange at first, and then I said to myself, This is an international event celebrating the brotherhood of man, not a military parade. Nor were these people jarheads or wingnuts; they were graduate students in creative writing. But they were so thoroughly indoctrinated in the idea of the Olympics as a vehicle for promoting nationalism that they could think no other way. And this was among a group of free-thinkers in an open and democratic society. Imagine how a government which tightly controls the news might spin the Olympics to tell their people Yes, our country is superior, and you don't want to change the system or you'll lose your place at the top. Or, as a Slavic Bill O'Reilly might put it, "Why do you hate Russia?"

Of course, the Communists were neither the first nor the best when it came to using sport as propaganda. As with many things, they learned from the best:
"German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence."
-- Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, April 23, 1933

1 comment:

jen said...

Yikes. The woman in that photo looks bigger than Bruce Jenner when he was on the Wheaties box.