SWIMNEWS ONLINE: March 1996 Magazine Articles

Shopping Media Kit Trial Issue Swim Camp Directory


Karin Helmstaedt

Heading into the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, it is worth looking back on some of the influences that have shaped our sport.

As we scan the evolution of world records for the various swimming events, a number of things stand out. Men's swimming has long been dominated by the United States, with some of the most impressive streaks showing up in the 50-100-200 freestyles (Tom Jager, Matt Biondi, Don Schollander), breaststroke (John Hencken, Steve Lundquist, Mike Barrowman) and butterfly (Mark Spitz). The Aussies have made their mark in the distance events, while in the backstrokes East German Roland Matthes shows a longevity that few have matched. Relays have traditionally been USA territory.

In the women's events the scenario is different. The late 50s, 60s and very early 70s are dominated largely by the United States and Australia, two great swimming nations. But something happens after 1972 to skew the pattern. That something is doping. The onset of doping in the German Democratic Republic sent women's world records plummetting in 1973. While this is common knowledge now, it seems ridiculous that no one questioned the dramatic takeover and domination at the time. And yet, it was as blatantly visible on paper as in the pool. What is more, no one seems to question the effect that the doping legacy still has on women's swimming today.

That is the point of this paper: to show just how present the effects of doping still are.

A simple graphing exercise suffices. Step one is to plot the evolution of the world record in each of the women's events. With Time (in years) on the x-axis, and time (in seconds) on the y-axis, we obtain a downward sloping curve.

Step two is to plot the world best performance for each year, and then superimpose the two graphs. Given that long course world records were recognized after May 1, 1957, we can use that as a starting point and graph the period 1957-1995 for each event.

What should we expect to see?

Ideally, a dramatic break in the world record curves in 1973. This "anabolic break" will show that doping had everything to do with the significant drop in times that was almost systematic across all the events in that year. Apart from when the two curves meet (when a world record is established it is obviously the best performance in a given year; for years with multiple world records the last one for that year appears on the graph), the world best curve should float a level or so above the world record curve, indicating the unattainability of the record for one or several years.

To see if the facts match our predictions, here are some of the best examples.

Women's 100 m Freestyle

This is the perfect graph in that it shows exactly what was anticipated. The steadily descending world record times during the late 50s and early 60s were largely due to improved stroke and training techniques. This is obvious given the stagnation of the curve from 1964-1971; the world best performance for these years was far inferior. The expected "anabolic break" shows up in 1973 with the arrival of Kornelia Ender of East Germany. By 1976 Ender had set a total of ten world records in this event, dropping from 58.25 to 55.65. In 1978 a new talent emerged from the ranks of the chemically-enhanced: Barbara Krause. She broke Ender's record in that year and left her final mark at 54.79 in 1980.

Poolside action. For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

It is important to note that apart from the world record set by Kristin Otto, also of East Germany, in 1986 (54.73, a mere .06 second improvement), the graph shows a practically straight line for twelve years before being broken more dramatically in 1992. As predicted, the world best times for those years are far off the record, showing how advanced the record was for the time. What is more, in 1992 it appeared that the record had reached somewhat of a plateau, with only very small improvements being possible. And yet another break occurs in 1994, coinciding with the takeover of the Chinese; at this level, 47/100 of a second is a significant drop, enough to make a dramatic dip in the curve.

The domination of the East Germans is evident on this graph, with the most significant point being the free fall of the graph at precisely the time when steroids became an integral part of the East German training regime. It appears that a normal (without drugs) improvement curve extrapolated from the break point in 1973 would have progressed downward at a more gradual rate. Given China's doping record, the fact that the world record is now held by a Chinese swimmer only drives home the point for any clean sprint freestyler: the history of the event is inexorably corrupted by drugs.

Women's 100 m Backstroke

Another example of the East German bomb going off in 1973: Ulrike Richter, combining doping with certain talent, made the world mark twice in '73, five times in '74, and then twice more in '76. The only women to break her incredible streak were Wendy Cook (CAN) in 1974 and the infamous Kornelia Ender in 1976. In three years Richter took 3.88 seconds off her first world record. Her final mark of 1:01.51 held until 1980 when it was eclipsed by yet another East German, Rica Reinisch, who has since indicted her coach (without success) for physical damages due to doping. Four years later, her compatriot Ina Kleber took the honours, and that world record stood until August 1991.

The "anabolic break" in 1973 is once again very visible. From 1976 to 1991, the world bests hover often more than two seconds above the world record time - and many of those world bests were done by doped East Germans. After 1980, the drop for each successive record is smaller and smaller. Between 1976 and 1991 (fifteen years!!), the total drop is only 1.20 seconds, with the 1991 record by Kristina Egerszegi, HUN, achieved after a rule change allowed a no-hand touch in backstroke. This shows the incredible level already attained back in 1976. It is again conceivable that, had the doping phenomenon not occurred, the "normal" evolution of the event would have shown quite a different curve-one that sloped more gently downward and broke more noticeably with the rule change. In 1994 the world record was claimed by a Chinese swimmer, Cihong He, and thus the warping continues.

Women's 400 m Individual Medley

Here is another clincher. What was exclusively an American-dominated event saw a good deal of improvement in the years leading up to 1968, once again due to stroke development and increased training. Gail Neall's (AUS) world record in 1972 marked a turning point, and then things predictably went haywire in 1973. Gudrun Wegner, (GDR), lopped nearly four seconds off her teammate Angela Franke's barely three-week-old world mark. Once again the graph goes into a free fall with Ulrike Tauber's successive world records, levelling off slightly with Tracy Caulkins' (USA) impressive 4:40.83 in 1978. Then Petra Schneider (GDR) came along to knock over four seconds off of Caulkins' mark in 1980 (4:36.29), bettering it yet again in 1982 to 4:36.10, where it has remained to this day. The graph is remarkable for its incredible fifteen- year-long flatline phenomenon; the only remaining individual East German world record was endangered only twice in that time.

The graphs on these pages illustrate what we have known for many years - a real East German domination exists across the history of most of the women's events in swimming. They show the undeniable effect that doping has had on our sport. But the world record-holders and top-ranked women were only the tip of the iceberg. What the graphs do not show is the horde of East German also-rans (not to mention other countries using drugs), who took up most of the top spots in the year-end world rankings for almost two decades. To return to the 100 freestyle, the East Germans monopolized the top three spots for four different years between 1972 and 1989. For the same period in the 100 breaststroke, 43.8 % of the top three places went to East Germans.

It is interesting to consider that, over the years, the internal time standards set by many countries, Canada among them, for competitions such as the Olympics, were based on the world rankings. In retrospect, during the doping years, many of those standards were probably unrealistic. Clean swimmers were up against an "anabolic norm" as drugged East Bloc athletes crowded the world rankings. The few who managed to outswim them possessed a talent more outstanding than they knew. Those who swam alongside them were robbed of the recognition and often the self-respect they deserved.

Today the athletic prowess of many East Bloc countries has been largely dismantled, but the traces still remain. With doping techniques forever evolving a step ahead of testing, how to weed out the cheats from the clean? There are new countries to menace the sport. It seems there will always be ways to distort history.

In Canadian swimming, last year's domestic program of unannounced testing yielded no positives. Zero. If Canadian swimmers should be proud of anything, it should be their history of doing it the hard way.

NOTE: All data for this article are taken from the ISSA archives and FINA Swimming Annuals. It is important to specify that swimming has seen a great deal of "real" talent; it is not our intention here to imply that all record or exceptional performances during and after the "anabolic" years of the East German and now Chinese dominances must necessarily be tainted.

Home | E-Mail | Top of Page | Mar 96 Contents | Magazine
Mag Archives | Calendar | World Rankings | Meet Results | Links to Sites
Photo Library | Biographies | Forums | Shopping | Classifieds

COPYRIGHT © 1995-1998 SWIMNEWS MAGAZINE, All Rights Reserved.
URL: http://swimnews.com