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Past Keeps the Waters Roiling : Swimming: Acknowledgment of systematic doping by East Germans has increased the friction with their new teammates.

BARCELONA 1992 OLYMPICS. 14 Days to the Games

July 11, 1992|THERESA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Divided again.

As Astrid Strauss stood on the blocks at the German Olympic swimming trials in Munich seven weeks ago, her former East German compatriots cheered her. But they were drowned out by the boos of former West Germans, including one who held up a banner that read: "No doping champion! Cheater go away!"

The divisive issue? Performance-enhancing drugs.

As the German swimming team was finding a middle ground 2 1/2 years after reunification, revelations that Strauss had unusually high testosterone levels in her system split the team into factions again.

Such levels of testosterone, a male hormone naturally produced by the body, are an indication of anabolic steroid use.

Strauss was suspended from the German Olympic team at the trials, took the matter to court and Thursday was advised that she would be entered in the Games provisionally, in case the court rules in her favor. A court decision is not expected before the Games, however, and without one, she will not be allowed to compete.

Sympathizers, however, believe Strauss' excessive testosterone level is natural.

"Have you ever seen her?" German Olympian Nils Rudolph asked. "She looks a bit strange."

Strange, to Rudolph, a former East German, means large.

"She's really tall (6 feet 1 and 180 pounds) and strong," he said. "She's always been that way."

Strauss' testosterone level, which had not exceeded standards in earlier tests, could have been higher because she was drinking champagne and beer at a birthday party the day before she was tested. Citing a source at the University of Heidelberg, Strauss contends that alcohol can increase testosterone levels.

Such anecdotal evidence might not impress the German National Olympic Committee, which generally does not abide by court rulings.

And to many former West Germans, Strauss, a 1988 Olympic silver medalist, is a painful reminder of ill-gotten glory.

While East German women were winning 32 of a possible 38 swimming gold medals in the 1976, 1980 and 1988 Olympics--East Germany boycotted in 1984--rumors of doping were rampant, although none of the East Germans tested positive.

"It was always on everybody's mind," UCLA Coach Ron Ballatore said. "Their girls were big and strong, and how could they come out of nowhere? But you hated to say it."

American Shirley Babashoff raised such questions at the 1976 Games after breaking world records in the 400- and 800-meter freestyles and still losing to East German Petra Thumer. Babashoff, who wound up with four silver medals and a relay gold, earned the nickname "Surly Shirley."

But last fall, Babashoff and scores of swimmers and coaches were vindicated when 20 former East German coaches acknowledged that their program had included the systematic use of anabolic steroids.

The coaches had hoped to put the matter to rest, but instead they raised several questions.

Should all former East German swimmers be stripped of their Olympic medals and world records? Should those medals and records be awarded to the next "clean" swimmer? If they were innocent victims, forced to take steroids as four-time Olympic gold medalist Kornelia Ender claims, should they still be penalized?

FINA, swimming's international governing body, is considering these issues. In February, it appointed a special commission to examine an extensive report on East German doping. Later this month, in Barcelona, the commission will discuss the implications of doping with the entire FINA bureau.

Meanwhile, some Americans are painting all East German swimmers with the same brush, even though the coaches did not identify individuals in their statement.

Perhaps those who competed in the shadow of the East Germans cannot be blamed for viewing the rise of women from other nations, including the United States, as a victory over drugs.

Certainly, that was the theme at the U.S. Olympic trials at Indianapolis in March when Jenny Thompson and Anita Nall broke world records held by East Germans.

At a news conference, Thompson said: "I think it's a little sweeter because supposedly those records were made by steroids, and I know that Anita and I aren't using steroids. It's just sweet to see that those records can be broken by natural means."

The improvement of teen-agers such as Nall, Thompson, Summer Sanders, Nicole Haislett and Janie Wagstaff, coupled with the weakening of the Germans, has fostered high hopes for the U.S. women.

But rumors of doping persist.

After unexpectedly fast times by the Chinese women at the Asian Games in September of 1990, prominent coaches from the United States, Australia and Hong Kong questioned their dramatic improvement and speculated that they are on steroids.

Yunpeng Chen, China's national team coach, denied it, and Chinese leaders continued to deny such allegations at the 1991 World Championships and the 1991 Pan Pacific meet.

Then, shortly after the U.S. trials, Zhang Xiong, Chinese assistant coach, turned the tables, attributing the improvement of American women to steroids.

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