The drug victims: They got flats, we got a drink with Ted Heath

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The Independent Online
Hugh Matheson, the Independent's Rowing Correspondent, was beaten to a gold medal by an East German crew at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. However, he believes his defeat in the eights final was down to the winners' professionalism - not drugs.

"Sell yourselves dearly". That was all Bob Janousek, our Czech coach, said before we went out for our Olympic eights rowing final. It was the best summary of three years' instruction that had taken the British crew from bottom of the pile at Munich in 1972 to pole position in Montreal. The phrase told us that we had the speed and skill to win, but that we were not favourites.

The race plan born from the experience of the heats and semi- final showed that we had to get to the front shortly after half-way and build our lead and try to hold off challenges in the closing stages. East Germany and New Zealand, the winners four years earlier, were the toughest opposition. The United States and Soviet Union, who should have been in the medals, had blown it early and were not in the final.

New Zealand could start fast, but we were covering the first 500 metres faster than the best eights do, even today. But they, like us, were amateurs, all in work and mostly on unpaid and grudged holiday to attend the Olympics. The East Germans were different. They trained, as professionals, four to five hours a day. There were 300 full-time coaches in their system. There were two in ours. They had a huge pool of athletes who had been drawn into the sport from an early age.

Much of our inside information came from Janousek, who had also been given a deep and detailed five-year-course in physical education at Charles V University in Prague and had insight into the thoroughness with which sporting success, which was in effect a branch of foreign policy, was applied behind the Iron Curtain.

We also assumed that they were given help from drugs. Because we knew little of the pharmacology that might be involved - beyond the standard "anabolic steroids" - our suspicions were unsophisticated and frankly did not make a damn-ed bit of difference.

We were all so manic in our own determination and so dog tired from the intensity of the training that we crammed into an hour and a half on weekdays and four at weekends that we spent little time thinking about it.

The East Germans did everything differently. They covered huge mileage at a low level of pressure working to raise their aerobic threshold. We sprinted everywhere and learned to work with high levels of pain and lactic acid in the joints. They spent at least a month each winter at high altitude in Bulgaria doing langlauf training on skis. They got a two-week holiday in Cuba if they won a gold medal. Ted Heath, then Prime Minister, asked us for a drink at Lancaster House.

There was plenty of downside for the East Germans. Their sports organisations were riddled with Stasi secret police officers. Sport was, after all, a means of expression for the state, not for the sportsmen, who were patronised and thanked with holidays and better flats.

They had to earn it, not just in competition but by toeing the party line which included a good deal of moralising about personal relationships. People were dropped from teams for having the wrong sort of affairs.

And, now that 20 years have passed, the biggest downside of all is emerging: the drugs they took then are popping out again in the form of reproductive difficulties and sexual confusion. The swimmers are beginning to sue their coaches and managers for abuse of minors under their care.

Janousek knew that most of us in the British crew would do whatever it took to win. We were willing to abuse our bodies to the extent of massive fatigue and pain, and a pill or two that relieved the stress and allowed more chance of success would not have seemed inappropriate to me then. Janousek was adamant and tough. It was not an option - a decision he took knowing the eventual price in results. Thank goodness he did. However, it never worried me that others took the opposite view.

At least the East Germans were under very strict controls, unlike other nations where athletes regularly dosed themselves with drugs bought from the local chemist, with no testing or controls.

In 1993 I received from Professor Werner Franke, who has collected most of the documents which survived the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, an academic paper describing the experiments with the East German rowing team in 1980. In this paper, the rowers are not named but cited by numbers. They are, however, easily identified because their racing records in the western regattas are quoted in full along with their Olympic results.

It is important that if in time the East German results are wiped from the record because of evidence of systematic drug abuse it will happen because it was systematic and was properly recorded. All the more chaotic abusers, which should include most of the Warsaw Pact countries, will get off only because they had no proper controls and no record keepers.

I have never given this particular fact publicity before because it would have seemed like sour grapes of the "We woz robbed" kind and because until the recent flurry of revelation people were not interested in what is a narrow and personal view.

But the overwhelming reason for keeping quiet about the drug abusers is that it remains to me a detail, a sidebar, to the principal reason we lost a gold medal in July 1976. We took the lead as planned with a devastating burst at 1,000m, which took half a length off the field and broke the New Zealanders. We held our lead right through the next 750m, but the head wind was sapping and made it a slow race. It favoured those with extensive training, the four-hours-a-day kind that is universal now.

Our intense programme made us thrilling sprinters, but with 150m to go we had run out of steam, and it was indeed East Germany who deservedly went through to win. Our heads went down and the boat slewed across the lanes. We had silver, but we had been defeated by stronger men.