SWIMNEWS ONLINE: October 1995 Magazine Articles

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Karin Helmstaedt

The scrapbook is full of yellowed newspaper clippings, certificates of achievement, and black and white photographs of smiling young girls in the water, their arms about each other's shoulders. To look at the pictures, one could imagine these children anywhere. The bulky nylon swimsuits and short, wet hair plastered to foreheads are the clichés of the 60s and 70s. The 12-year-old faces give nothing away.

"It was like living under a bell jar," Renate Bauer remembers. What she has to say about the years she spent as a swimmer in East Germany make her mother's carefully kept scrapbook look like a game of blind man's bluff.

In those days, she was Renate Vogel.

When I first asked her if she would talk to me about her swimming past, Renate laughed and said, "I would be glad to talk, but there are certain people who don't like it much when I talk."

Certain people who have no doubts as to how it really was behind the seemingly normal photographs and the endless string of East German medals. Certain people who would like what Renate has to say kept quiet, buried under piles of dusty Staasi files. People who were involved in a monumental scam and like to pretend that they weren't.

The Early Years

Born in 1955 in Karl-Marx-Stadt, Renate started swimming at the age of 9. After two years she was recruited to enter the 5th grade class at the Kreisjugendsportschule (KJS) there. In the budding GDR sport machine, the KJS-Karl-Marx-Stadt was a successful centre for figure skating (later on, Katarina Witt was also a Karl-Marx-Stadt prodigy), track and field, cycling, weightlifting, football, and swimming. Renate's training group included future East German swim stars Hannelore Anke, Ulrike Tauber, and Andrea Hubner.

She and her teammates were part of the early development of the KJS system. Renate remembers that as they progressed, and even beyond their careers, the schools became increasingly centralized and "professional." Initially swim workouts were held in a facility that was also frequented by the public. This changed as gradually the public was excluded and kept out of the pool during KJS training time. Finally, a huge sportsplex was built exclusively for the KJS sports teams. The new facilities, located outside the city, included a stadium, a 50m pool, a velodrome, a track and a throwing field, and were totally closed to the public. The isolation was made complete by the fact that Renate was a boarder at the school. "I couldn't even see my parents," she says, "It was difficult."

It is clear that by the early 1970s the GDR had realized the implications of using sport as a political weapon and was pouring money into the regional sport schools; each school pared down its program and specialized in 3 to 4 disciplines. Karl-Marx-Stadt kept all but one of its original sports: football was dropped because it was considered "uneconomical," the rationale being that team sports produced only one medal for a group of athletes. Individual sports such as swimming and weightlifting produced many medals per athlete and therefore had more potential to bolster propaganda and make the GDR stand out as a sporting power.

Renate's routine, like that of the scores of other KJS children, was tedious: compulsory workouts and daily weight training, annual goal times and the continual threat of expulsion if performances faltered. Her 5th grade class of 24 pupils was divided into separate training groups for girls and boys. The class diminished steadily until the 8th grade, at which time there were only 5 girls left. The boys' group had been completely eliminated, and any hopes the youngsters had had for a swimming career were subsequently dissolved. Says Renate, "Everything was so centralized that it wasn't as if you could just go to another team once you were out. It didn't work that way."

Renate improved steadily however, establishing herself as a breaststroker. An older cousin of hers, Helga Lindner, swam at the same school and went on to win a silver medal in the 200 butterfly at the 1968 Olympics. At the time, Renate says, "All I wanted was to be better than my cousin." It wasn't long before the younger of the "Karl-Marx-Stadt cousins" was to have her time in the sun, but at a steep price.

From the 9th grade on, Renate was completely alone during school classes. "It was just myself and one teacher," she says. "It was very lonely." As many of the upper classes consisted of only 2 or 3 pupils, Anke, Tauber and the others were in the same situation a year or so behind her.

In 1970, Renate set her first national record in the 100 breaststroke (1:17.4) and made the National A team. Her schedule became even more demanding. Because she travelled so much and attended classes only when she was at home, grades 9 and 10 took her 3 years to complete. A normal training load was 8 to 12 km a day, with variations for the breaststrokers. There were at least 5 training camps a year, during which the swimmers logged approximately 12 to 16 km a day. Weight training continued every day.

The atmosphere during this time was one of no concessions "We had to be there, always," she says, "Birthdays, family parties, it didn't matter what was going on. Training was obligatory."

"Things got really hard"

Renate made the Olympic team in 1972. In Munich, she was eliminated in the semi-final of the 100 breaststroke (1:16.87), but swam on the silver medal-winning medley relay. Roland Matthes, by that time already an Olympic veteran, won both backstrokes and added a silver and bronze in the relays. Kornelia Ender, only 13 at the time, was a triple silver medalist.

"After Munich," says Renate, "things got really hard. The training load was even heavier. It was pool, weight room, and school. Nothing else."

"UM" was first whispered in the fall of 1972. A new addition to the vitamin pills she and her teammates received after every workout, "UM", or "Unterstutzende Mittel" (supporting means), was the euphemistic term for Oral-Turinabol, an anabolic steroid preparation. The little blue pills were to be the basis for the country's sporting success. Each girl received her individual dose of "vitamins" from the coach's hand. Renate laughs wryly and says, "There were vitamins in there, but they were the least of it."

"UM" marked the beginning of a new era in East German sport, and although Renate says she was unaware of the anabolic treatment in the beginning, the athletes understood early on that they were never to speak of it. She says, "They were very sly and started giving us the pills in the fall, when everyone usually gets a cold. They told us the tablets would help prevent us from getting sick." She initially thought her increased musculature was a result of additional specialized weight training, but adds that "when I started ripping my shirts, I knew something was up."

In less than a year the East German women took over women's swimming. At the first World Championships in Belgrade in 1973, they won 10 out of 14 events. Kornelia Ender was the star of the show with two individual golds (100 free, 100 fly), two relay golds (and a world record lead-off in the 4x100 FR), and a silver medal in the 200 IM.

Among other East German women contributing to the effort were Ulrike Richter, Rosemarie Kother, Andrea Hubner, Gudrun Wegner, and of course, Renate herself. She won both the 100 m (1:13.74) and 200 m (2:40.01) breaststrokes, swimming lifetime best times. She added a third gold in the world record-setting medley relay (4:16.84), splitting 1:12.93 after Richter's world record backstroke lead-off (1:04.99)...taking a total of three seconds off her 100 time in just under a year. The "vitamins" had obviously paid off.

At the first World Championships, Belgrade 1973, GDR world record holders Kornelia Ender, Rosemarie Kother, Renate Vogel and Ulrike Richter.

Guinea Pigs

After these dramatic results, training took on an ever more sinister slant. "UM" continued to be administered in regular cycles during hard, background training. Once a month, Renate was sent to the Forschungsinstitut fur Korperkultur und Sport (FKS) in Leipzig for three days of "testing."

Athletes who came to the FKS served as guinea pigs for a phenomenal amount of research. Naturally only a select few doctors and coaches were allowed into this specialized sports research institute as it contained some of the most advanced training facilities, in particular, the top-secret "Stromungskanal," a special 10 m by 3 m tank with an adjustable current capacity.

Renate remembers frequent sessions in the canal: her coach, Eberhard Motes, sat behind the window at one end of the tank while she swam a main set in the tank. He controlled the amount of countercurrent, observed her stroke, and directed her technique by means of a tiny microphone that was lodged in her ear. She says it was "brutal" to fight against the waves while trying to obey orders and maintain a controlled pace. If she failed to keep up, she ended up in a net at the far end of the tank. "You can see the swimmer's technique beautifully in the canal," says Renate, "and the radical changes in the stroke as the swimmer gets tired. It was a very effective training device."

Other tests included psychological "load" tests to determine the hardiness of the swimmers. Another form of selection, these tests were performed before and after all-out sprints. Simple concentration tests consisted of a 50 m sprint, after which blood lactate was taken, and then a rhythmical exercise such as placing puzzle shapes into the corresponding spaces at regular intervals. This allowed scientists to see how quickly the athlete could achieve a normal concentration level.

Power tests were done with pulley machines; the swimmer was attached to the apparatus by a belt and had to swim on the spot, sustaining a certain weight while the coach added more weight every minute. One of the most unpleasant tests was the test of nerves, in which the swimmers were required to perform a VO2 max test in the water, while wearing a gas mask. "That was the worst," says Renate, "The mask used to fill up with water and you couldn't see...it was awful." Many of the swimmers got claustrophobic during this exercise and could not concentrate. "If you couldn't take it," she adds,"you were thrown out." Survival of the fittest was definitely the bottom line.

As if that weren't enough, Renate continues, "Things got much worse."

In 1974 the injections started. Testosterone injections were administered regularly during heavy, groundwork training, and just after the women's menstrual periods. "It was no problem," says Renate, "The doctors supervising us knew exactly who was on what medication and when, and how long they needed to be clean." She adds that, "During training camps, the coach knew every day at breakfast who was overworked, or who could be worked harder. He had very precise information." Daily urine and blood lactate tests were being used for reasons the western world had not yet imagined.

Toward the end of the 1974 season, Renate began having knee and elbow problems (overstrained ligaments, no doubt a result of an excessive muscle gain and heavy weight training) and knew that she was nearing the end of her career. Besides that, she was tired and getting increasingly fed up with the brutality of the training program.

At the European Championships in Vienna she swam a world record time of 1:12.91 in the morning heats of the 100 m breaststroke, only to finish second in the final behind Christel Justen of West Germany, who bettered that record to a 1:12.55. The 200 m breast was no longer her territory, and the new generation was hot on her heels: her compatriot Karla Linke took the gold, setting yet another world record in 2:34.99. Anne-Katrin Schott, also of East Germany, took the silver medal with a 2:38.88.

After Europeans, Renate had one more competition before she could hang up her swimsuit: US Nationals in Concord. The East Germans sent a team for the simple reason that they knew there would be no doping control at the meet.

Because it was her last meet, she figured she would get away without the obligatory "shot in the behind"...the women were typically given a "booster shot" even before taking the few weeks of summer holidays accorded to them, as the testosterone limited muscle loss during that time. Much to her distress, however, there was no getting out of it. Her coaches were going to get every last ounce of performance out of her before letting her go. From Vienna, she was flown to Berlin for a brief stop at the famous Kreischa laboratory.

At the time, the Kreischa lab was run by Dr. Lothar Kipke, the Chief Medical Officer of East German swimming. He was a prominent member of the FINA Medical Committee, and as Renate says, "He oversaw the individual doping programs of all the GDR National Team members." Kipke was not only at he centre of it all, but he was a ruthless administrator, keeping tabs on what every athlete received through each sport's designated doctor. He also covered up the whole operation for the outside world. Renate narrows her eyes. "He was a sharp one, a hard one," she says, "He had absolutely no conscience."

Having received her shot, Renate was sped off to Concord for her final competition. On September 1, a mere ten days after her world record swim in Vienna, she reclaimed the 100 m breaststroke world record with a time of 1:12.28. Only then, tired and angry, was she was allowed to quit. She was 19 years old.

Renate Vogel in 1973


PLACE: Karl-Marx-Stadt
COACH: Eberhard Motes


  • 72 Olympics: 2nd 4x100 Medley Relay, 5th semi-final 100 breast 1:16.87
  • 73 World Championships: 1st 100 breast 1:13.74, 1st 200 breast 2:40.01,
    1st 4x100 Medley Relay (1:12.93 split)
  • 74 Europeans: 2nd 100 breast 1:13.69

    World Records

  • 100 breast 1:12.91, Vienna, Aug.22, 1974
  • 100 breast 1:12.78 Concord, Sep 1, 1974
  • 4x100 MR 4:16.84 Belgrade, Sep 4, 1973
  • 4x100 MR 4:13.78 Vienna, Aug.24, 1974

    Best time progression

    Year	100 breast	200 breast
    1970			2:48.40
    1971	1:16.70		2:43.50
    1972	1:16.87
    1973	1:13.74		2:40.01
    1974	1:12.28		2:43.05

    Looking back, Renate acknowledges that the UM wasn't responsible for all of the East German success. Roland Matthes, according to her, was very much against it, and managed to fight the doping program because of "his position of strength." No doubt the fact that he was a man helped his cause-he was less successful in fighting the regime when it came to his romantic life, having to pass up a Brazilian girl with whom he was smitten. "The GDR didn't like that at all, and he was quickly convinced," says Renate. His subsequent affair with Kornelia Ender's older sister was snuffed out when he had to settle for Kornelia herself, eight years his junior. "I think the marriage was arranged to produce superswimmers," says Renate matter-of-factly. Like the illusion under which it was enforced, the marriage didn't last.

    "Konnie was an unbelievable talent," adds Renate. "The UM just helped out and gave her the extra boost. The talent must be there, and I do think that kind of extraordinary talent exists."

    But her face clouds when she points out that a look at the world ranking lists over those years and on into the 1980s confirms the worst. "Some people were only good for one season," she says, "then they disappeared." Too high a dose, health problems, or just an inability to hold up under the enormous pressure. "A few girls were constant for a few years in a row, but most of the stars disappeared very quickly."

    Much like the Chinese women today, I point out. Renate's cynical look comes back. "They certainly don't have a very typical Asian morphology, do they?" she retorts.

    Did she experience any serious side effects from the doping? "No," she answers, but then admits that she no longer swims at all because her knees and elbows still bother her if she does. "I didn't take the drugs for long enough," she adds, "but I saw what happened to others." She cites the example of individual medley swimmer Ulrike Tauber, who "was once a very pretty girl." She went on to compete in two World Championships (1975, 1978) and the Olympics in Montreal. "She was completely changed," says Renate sadly.


    In 1979 Renate escaped from East Germany.

    Although she had wanted to defect in 1974 when she was in the United States, she refrained from doing so because she felt she needed to have a profession before she could consider herself independent. The East German authorities were very careful to make sure their athletes had no relatives in the West when allowing them to travel, and Renate knew that the moment she fled she was on her own. Clear-headed and determined, she returned to Karl-Marx-Stadt to finish her studies.

    Getting out was not easy, as she had limited mobility. For East German citizens, only group travel to selected East Bloc countries was permitted. With the help of a French woman she had met in Bulgaria, Renate got a false identity card and, while on "holiday" in Budapest, bought an airline ticket to Munich. From Munich she took a train to Stuttgart and went to the police. She proved her true identity by pointing out her picture in the 1972 Olympic Games book in the archives of the local swim team. The West Germans gave her a passport, and she settled in Bietigheim, where she started coaching for the small club there. She later went to Cologne to obtain her coaching licence, returned to Bietigheim, and coached periodically with the West German National Team (DSV).

    "It was hilarious when I would turn up on deck at big competitions," laughs Renate. "The GDR team would sit on the opposite side of the pool. I was the enemy."

    "Many of those people (coaches and doctors etc.) are still working," she adds. "They were all involved and yet they know nothing. They were such liars." She smirks. "And now when they see me (at the World Championships in Rome), they are too friendly...it's very macabre."

    After she was settled in the West, Renate was unable to publicize what she knew about the East German system. "I couldn't talk because my family was still there," she says. The East German policy of "Sippenhaft" meant that one's relatives were responsible for whatever sins one committed. "They pay for you," says Renate. "My parents, my employer, anyone I knew either lost their job or was transferred. The GDR was very nervous that I might say something, so they threatened people."

    Her West German employers feared for her safety when she traveled with the swim team because, she says, "I eventually talked, albeit quietly, about the system, but not about the UM." In 1981 she encountered Gerhard Winkel, an East German sports doctor who also got out. Together they circulated a small pamphlet to a select group of coaches detailing their involvement in the GDR system. The pamphlet made little more than a ripple through the community.

    After a while Renate left swimming altogether. She now runs an exclusive lingerie boutique in Bietigheim, where she has remained with her husband and daughter. The Wall is down, and contact with her family is easier. Her mother's scrapbook and other swimming memorabilia are stashed away in the cupboard. She is in touch with very few of her former teammates, and while she still pays attention to competitive swimming, she does so now at a safe distance. Today she can talk about the past without repercussions, but she still has doubts as to whether talk is effective.

    So why was nothing ever done, even after enough people in the West knew what was happening in East Germany?

    "I don't know," she says cynically. "You tell me."

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