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
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
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.
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