Review of German Sports, Doping, and Politics

Krüger, Michael, Becker, Christian, and Stefan Nielsen. German Sports, Doping, and Politics: A History of Performance Enhancement. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. xliii + 201. Bibliography, Index, and Notes. $70 hardback, $69.99 ebook.

Reviewed by Lindsay Parks Pieper

In December 2014, the German broadcast consortium ARD aired “Top-Secret Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winner.” The documentary not only described widespread and overt anti-doping violations, but also implicated the Russian Ministry of Sport, the All-Russian Athletics Federation, and Russia’s National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA), as well as athletes, coaches, and team physicians. The film’s damning allegations convinced the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to launch an investigation into the Russian track and field program. After almost a full year of inquiry, the WADA commission confirmed the existence of a “culture of doping.”

Immediately, people tied Russia to the German Democratic Republic (GDR). “We haven’t seen this since East Germany,” exclaimed former US Olympian Sarah Konrad. Similarly, Will Hobson of the Washington Post posited that “the only historical parallel to the doping regime alleged in Russia is the East German program in the 1970s and ‘80s.” Although doping scholars highlight the prevalence of doping in several countries during the Cold War—including in the United States—East Germany remains the historical representation of performance enhancement.

German Sports Cover

Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

That a German documentary tipped off the investigation that, in turn, unearthed recollections of East Germany’s state-sponsored doping regime underscores the country’s troubled history with doping. Michael Krüger, Christian Becker, and Stefan Nielsen explore this uneasy relationship in German Sports, Doping, and Politics: A History of Performance Enhancement. The authors argue that doping occurred on both sides of the Berlin Wall, German scientists helped doping and anti-doing efforts, and only the intervention of an international entity offered a modicum of success in the fight against performance enhancement.

German Sports, Doping, and Politics originated as a research project initiated by the German Olympic Sports Federation and sponsored by the Federal Institute of Sports Science. In supporting the research, explain the authors, the stakeholders wanted to know “whether and to what extent the problem of doping had an impact on the relationship between sports and Germany policy, or whether this relationship itself contributed inversely to supporting or combating doping” (p. xiv).

To answer this multifaceted question, Krüger, Becker, and Nielsen separate German Sports, Doping, and Politics into three long chapters. Chapter one, “From Common Practice to Prohibition: The Beginnings of Doping and Anti-Doping in German Sport of the 1950s and 1960s,” lays the historical foundation. The post-World War II division of Germany into separate territories planted the seed for the later political differences of the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). These ideological contrasts extended into sport. Competition in the East was “organized according to communist principles of the Soviet Union,” explain the authors, while sport in the West was “private, personal, and free” (p. 2). The lingering anxieties about Nazism convinced FRG sport authorities to prioritize an autonomous athletic structure and eschew state-subsidized sport—at least initially. Eventually, the financial demands of elite competitions encouraged officials to lend support.

The drive for international athletic success also allowed doping to seep into West Germany. FRG sport practitioners never obligated performance enhancement like their German counterparts in the East, however, the demands for excellence nevertheless “motivated athletes, coaches, and doctors in the West to dope as well” (p. 19). By the 1960s, argue Krüger, Becker, and Nielsen, doping was common practice across Germany. The government recognized the issue but preferred to leave testing and sanctions to sport organizations and scientists, establishing a trend that remained intact until the 1990s.

In the next chapter, “Cold War and the Climax of Doping in Germany: From the Munich Olympics of 1972 via Montreal 1976 to the Introduction of Out-of-Competition Controls in the 1980s,” the authors analyze the impact of anabolic steroids on both sport and anti-doping measures. In the 1970s, West Germany aspired to mirror its neighbor in medals, training, and medical treatments; yet, sport practitioners still wanted to keep competition free from state control, creating a paradoxical situation. To further add to the FRG’s conflicting aims, the government became increasingly vested in sport (demanding victories) after the 1972 Munich Olympics due to tax-payer subsidies and public interest. It also became clear, at this time, that science played an important role in sporting success. Despite the state interest, sport organizations maintained control of anti-doping policies.

With sport organizations in charge of doping controls, “reducing anabolic doping was complicated, inconsistent, and controversial” (p. 75). The groups responsible for the checks proved uninterested in steroids and more concerned with the use of stimulants. Moreover, scientists disagreed about the effects of testosterone and no clear testing mechanism existed. As a result, West German sport governors “were controlling and sanctioning doping rather timidly,” until the 1976 Montreal Olympics (p. 79). In Montreal, West German athletes were rewarded, not punished for “morally questionable” behavior (p. 103). According to the authors, the apparent alignment of West Germany with East Germany convinced sport organizations to adjust techniques, including out-of-competition controls that went against the autonomous nature of West German sport.

The final chapter, “Doping and Anti-Doping in the Process of German Reunification,” examines doping sanctions in the unified country, as well as the creation and evolution of WADA. After reunification in 1989, researchers uncovered troves of documents that proved widespread doping in East Germany. When considering sanctions to impose on the responsible individuals, the state first allowed sport groups to articulate punishments. When the practitioners suggested a pardon for all incriminated, the Parliament stepped in and vetoed the suggestion. Instead, the group recommended a budget cut, a significant move toward penalizing and criminalizing doping. However, the cut was dropped in time for the Barcelona Olympics, illustrating the importance of the international sport forum in the reunification process. Echoing the previous paradox, Germany wanted to both distance itself from its doping past, yet also aspired to be the best in the world.

German Sports, Doping, and Politics closes by describing the establishment of an “international political anti-doping regime”—WADA. Krüger, Becker, and Nielsen explain that after the Ben Johnson scandal, governments finally became involved in the anti-doping fight. Prior to the establishment of WADA, “anti-doping efforts seemed insufficient, incompetent, and quite futile” (p. 160). National laws had failed because of inherent territorial limitations and a lack of practical punishments; intergovernmental partnerships lacked commitment; and Cold War tensions ensured secrecy and a lack of cooperation. According to the authors, “Only joint international activities against doping could reduce the problem” (p. 161). WADA therefore seized control of anti-doping from sport organizations and governmental entities. However, Krüger, Becker, and Nielsen caution, the desire for national prominence through sport continues, an impossible obstacle to any anti-doping effort.

German Sports, Doping, and Politics is an exhaustive study that provides a detailed history of doping and anti-doping in Germany. The authors visited a noteworthy amount of archives and utilized an impressive variety of sources, including scientific reports, scholarly papers, and popular accounts, for the publication. Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is how it chronicles both the scientific support of and fight against doping. As they explain, “doping and anti-doping are two sides of the same coin” (23). By doing so, German Sports, Doping, and Politics demonstrates the nuances of—and difficulties stopping—performance enhancement. Furthermore, Krüger, Becker, and Nielsen illustrate the “contradictory performance expectations” created by elite, state-subsidized sport. “Politicians and the pubic expect maximum sport performance,” they explain, but “this maximum performance has to be achieved without any performance enhancers” (p. xvii). These competing claims creates a paradox that clearly continues today.

While the depth of German Sports, Doping, and Politics is an asset, its moment-by-moment organization is a drawback. The book started as a report for the stakeholders who invested in the research; it was later translated into English. As such, it is written with such painstaking detail that a non-scholarly audience may find inaccessible and repetitive. Moreover, the authors’ primary focus on politics leaves some other sociocultural angles unexplored. For example, when Krüger, Becker, and Nielsen explore the doping of GDR women athletes, they make no mention of the gender anxieties that underscored female doping.

Despite these two drawbacks, German Sports, Doping, and Politics is an important addition to the doping canon. Importantly, Krüger, Becker, and Nielsen highlight the paradox of modern sport: the push for absolute excellence without artificial enhancement. They warn that while WADA and NADAs “have raised hopes. . . for a future in sports with less doping,” such optimisms would “be unrealistic if implying that the doping problem could be resolved completely” (p. 201).

The recent allegations against Russian athletes seem to prove their point.

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College and the Book Review Editor of Sport in American History. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.

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