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Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics

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Sport under communism: behind the East German ‘miracle’

Alan McDougall a a University of Guelph, Guelph, Canada © 2013, Alan McDougall Published online: 07 May 2013.

To cite this article: Alan McDougall (2013) Sport under communism: behind the East German ‘miracle’, Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, 16:6, 841-843, DOI:


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Sport in Society


Having covered their Caribbean adventure myself, I can confidently suggest that the Afghans, now that they have made the cut are determined to stay at the top, a belief reinforced by Albone. This determination was evident when Aimal Shinwari, the chaste English-speaking CEO of the Afghan team, almost pleaded with journalists in Barbados to write about their adventure. Unlike other teams participating in the competition who had all opted to stay away from the media, the Afghans put out all stops to ensure that the media got every opportunity to interact with the players and report on their life stories. They wanted their stories told and justly so. It was the story of a new Afghanistan, not the nation ravaged by the Taliban but one of hope and intensity. It spoke of a new dawn in Afghan history and cricket, as Albone demonstrates, had played a huge part in bringing it about.

Boria Majumdar University of Central Lancashire, UK cristorian@yahoo.com q 2013, Boria Majumdar


Sport under communism: behind the East German ‘miracle’ , by Mike Dennis and Jonathan Grix, London, Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, xiv þ 261 pp., £55 (hardback), ISBN


At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), home to just 17 million inhabitants, won 90 medals. It finished second in the medal table, behind the Soviet Union and ahead of both the USA and West Germany. Following its breakthrough at the Munich Games 4 years earlier, the East German team’s eye- catching performance in Montreal cemented the GDR’s position as the world’s leading sports nation, an unofficial title that granted the country international and domestic respect that it lacked in many other areas. The causes of this sports ‘miracle’ were, from the outset, hotly debated. Responding to a reporter’s question in Montreal about the deep voices of the women’s swimming team, the East German coach Rolf Gla¨ ser tersely remarked: ‘They didn’t come to sing, they came to swim’ (123). After communism collapsed, the systematic nature of drug use in elite sport was publicly revealed, proving that the suspicions of the 1970s were well founded. On a short list of tropes of the defunct East German state – alongside the Berlin Wall, the Trabant car and the Stasi (secret police) – muscular, all-conquering female athletes would feature prominently. Yet, as Mike Dennis and Jonathan Grix show in their new study, doping neither encapsulates nor fully explains the story of sport under East German communism. Dennis and Grix’s book offers the first scholarly, English-language study of the GDR sports system. Drawing on a range of archival material as well as judicious use of existing literature, it probes the hidden layers of the country’s sports behemoth. The aim is twofold:

first, to illustrate sport’s role as an exemplar of the ‘contested’ nature of the East German dictatorship. If there was a sports ‘miracle’, Dennis and Grix conclude, it was not based on the smoothly oiled sports machine of Cold War mythology, but rather on successes achieved in the face of institutional and personal rivalries that frequently caused the machine to malfunction. Second, Sport under Communism places GDR sport in a comparative context, arguing that much of what characterizes elite sport development in

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842 Book Reviews

modern-day democracies such as Australia, Britain and Canada can be traced, directly or indirectly, to the GDR’s path-breaking model. After early chapters discussing the political use of sport and the evolution of the GDR’s elite sport programme, the book focuses on key topics that speak to the authors’ over- arching themes. The regime’s widely praised system of youth talent development is first held up to critical examination. The evidence presented suggests that a variety of factors – from the obstructive role of parents to the waste inherent in a ‘rigid pyramid system’ (76) that overlooked late bloomers – allowed talented sportspersons to slip through the net. The weighty subject of doping is accorded two chapters, examining, respectively, the origins and growth of the GDR’s drug programme; and the morally and legally fraught post- unification attempts to bring doping perpetrators to justice. Attention then turns to the ‘problem child’ of football. In this hugely popular ‘contested sphere’, local, regional and institutional rivalries – in conjunction with schematic training programmes and the global competitiveness of the sport – made it difficult for players to replicate the international impact of their peers in swimming or athletics. Football was among East Germany’s most popular recreational sports. In Chapter 7, the authors illustrate how the ‘virtuous cycle’ of sports development promoted by the East German authorities, in which elite and mass sport are mutually reinforcing, was more myth than reality. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a vast gulf between the resources lavished on performance sport and the neglectful provision of mass sport facilities and equipment. Although Olympic teams trained at specialist centres in the latest Adidas clothing, recreational swimmers encountered run- down pools and aspiring marathoners faced shortages in the supply of running shoes. Dennis and Grix’s book serves as an excellent introduction to the institutions and policies that underpinned East German sport. For the uninitiated, negotiating the plethora of organizations and individuals involved in this process can be a daunting task. Sport under Communism lucidly introduces the key players, such as Manfred Ewald, the authoritarian head of East German sport from 1961 to 1988; and Erich Mielke, Stasi boss, football fanatic and chairman of the Dynamo sports club. It explains with equal clarity how the three-tier sports system worked, or was meant to work. Echoing recent scholarship, there is an emphasis here on the political in-fighting and institutional enmities that complicated policy implementation and highlight the sometimes fragmented structures of communist power. Even in the highly centralized field of doping, individual coaches and organizations such as Dynamo and the army sports club (Vorwa¨ rts) marched to their own tune. In football, entrenched territorialism made central planning all but impossible. Another virtue of Dennis and Grix’s work is to situate GDR sport in a comparative framework. Often viewed sui generis, as an atypically ruthless attempt to subvert fair play, the East German system did not exist in a vacuum. It was part of the international trend towards professionalization that has characterized elite sport since the 1960s. On the issue of doping, for example, the authors show how the gap between the GDR and its major political and sporting rival, West Germany, was not as large as has often been assumed – a conclusion that endorses recent culturally focused histories of Cold War Germany, which emphasize the similarities, rather than the differences, between the two states. The link between the GDR model of elite sport development and those aggressively adopted by contemporary democracies reminds us that the East German legacy remains influential beyond the drugs issue. A hands-on government approach that fosters a professional sporting environment, in which youth talent development, top-class facilities, high-quality coaching and the latest sports science combine to create Olympic success: Ewald’s vision has been taken up by sports administrators across the world since the GDR’s disappearance in 1990.

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Sport in Society


Sport under Communism is more effective as an institutional than as a social history. Though attempts are made to include the people’s voices through a selective examination of Eingaben (petitions) to the authorities on sports-related issues, there are no interviews with players, officials or fans. The book’s source base – rich material from the central party and Stasi archives – tends to reinforce a top-down, institutional approach to the history of GDR sport, even as the authors convincingly argue that this history was more complex and multi-layered than such sources might suggest. Mass sport is given only one short chapter. The conclusion that the provision of recreational facilities and equipment declined from the late 1970s onwards, as a result of the GDR’s growing economic crisis, does not sufficiently recognize the similar problems that existed two decades earlier (and the complaints that were also made then). The ‘decline’ of the GDR’s final decade was, arguably, less about decline per se than it was about raised expectations. The book’s emphasis on the final 20 years of communist rule is understandable, given that many of the milestones of the sports miracle – such as the 1969 high-performance directive (which focused attention and money on specific Olympic sports); the finalization of an integrated talent-spotting system (1973); and the introduction of State Plan 14.25 (1974), the key document in the GDR’s clandestine doping programme – occurred at the start of this period. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which, not only in the field of mass sport, the more chaotic developments of the 1950s and early 1960s are under-represented. More generally, the book might have engaged in greater depth with some of the key theoretical debates in GDR studies. Sophisticated discussion on, for example, the character of the communist dictatorship, the nature of state-societal relations or the significance of the GDR’s petition culture is largely absent. Though not without shortcomings, Dennis and Grix’s book provides a highly informative, carefully researched and clearly argued introduction to East German sport, one that places in its proper context the infamous distribution of 5 mg blue tablets of the steroid Oral-Turinabol to unsuspecting minors. For anyone interested in understanding sport’s contentious role in legitimizing the East German state and the central position occupied by the GDR model in post-1989 approaches to elite sport development, it can be strongly recommended.

Alan McDougall University of Guelph, Guelph, Canada amcdouga@uoguelph.ca q 2013, Alan McDougall


Deafness, community and culture in Britain: leisure and cohesion, 1945– 1995 , by Martin Atherton, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2012, xi þ 224 pp., US$100 (hardcover), ISBN 9-78-071908467-6

Deafness, Community and Culture in Britain is a highly informative text which sheds fresh light on socio-cultural understandings concerning deafness within British society. Utilizing 1945 –1995 as its temporal focal point, the monograph delivers on its pledge to provide:

a more detailed understanding of how deaf people interacted with each other and the surrounding hearing world, the social and cultural behaviour of British deaf people in leisure