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

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Life and Style
Duchess of Cambridge standswith officials outside of the former wartime spy centre in Bletchley Park
tech
News
people
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'