Team GB Are The New East Germany

David Cameron harping on about how a small nation had mixed it with the big boys. Sound familiar?
Publish date:
Updated on


By most standards, London 2012 has been a huge success. Many of those who had reservations about the Games have been swept along in the wave of euphoria emanating from the sporting festival. When 80’s popstar and perennial miserablist Morrissey spoke out against the "blustering jingoism" and "foul patriotism" surrounding the Olympics; saying that the "spirit of 1939 Germany now pervades throughout media-brand Britain”- he was widely condemned and rightly so.

The ex-Smith got the location right, but the era wrong. The all-conquering home athletes; lavishly bankrolled by the government and roared on by a cheerleading state broadcaster, docile press and an unquestioning public bring to mind a Berlin of a different vintage. Team GB are the new East Germany.

On the final Sunday, a beaming David Cameron went to the BBC’s Olympic Park studio and basked in the reflected glory of the medal haul. He waxed lyrical about how a relatively small country like ours had risen up and mixed it with the big boys. As a nation, we had demonstrated our unique fighting spirit to finish a remarkable third in the table. Close your eyes and you could have been listening to Erich Honecker.

When it comes to a small state achieving against the odds, East Germany was the gold standard. On the last day of the Mexico 68 games rowing regatta, the German Democratic Republic (DDR) won their first two Olympic gold’s. This was the start of a rowing dynasty that claimed 33 gold medals between then and 1991 and cast the dye for a generation of sporting dominance.

When 80’s popstar and perennial miserablist Morrissey spoke out against the "blustering jingoism" and "foul patriotism" surrounding the Olympics

Cameron bragged about a 60 million strong nation being able to finish third in the medal table. East Germany, with a population of just 16 million, came second to its big Soviet brother in each of the three Olympics it contested between 1976 and 1988, clocking up gold totals of 40, 47 and 37 respectively. Against that, Great Britain and Northern Ireland managed three, five and five - dropping to just the one at Atlanta 96.

In their brief Olympic history, the DDR took 38 gold’s in swimming and another 38 in athletics. Over this period, East German athletes, particularly the women, put in performances that rewrote the record books. So formidable were they, the last of the world records, the women’s 4 x 100 relay set in 1985, survived until the last Friday of London 2012.

The prime minister suggests that the gold rush of 2012 will have huge benefits, justifying the cost of the project by boosting Britain’s image abroad and kick starting a mass participation boom at home. By looking at the experience of another country that emerged from obscurity to storm the upper echelons of the medal table, we can see how realistic those aspirations are.

As the Königsblau vests and swimming costumes of the DDR left the opposition floundering in their wake, the world looked on open mouthed. This was not a sign of admiration- more straight up disbelief. Top level sport is awash with performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). For decades the athletes have been way ahead of the authorities to the extent that you have to be a Class-A bonehead to ever get caught.

The prime minister suggests that the gold rush of 2012 will have huge benefits, justifying the cost of the project by boosting Britain’s image abroad

For this reason, despite the rumours, East Germans passed every drug test and the records stood for years after the Wall fell. Technically, they may have been legal, but the consensus feeling among competitors and fans was that the East Germans were bang at it. Rather than being applauded, the achievements of the nation were dismissed as literally incredible with revulsion rather respect as the prevailing reaction.

Once the regime collapsed and the systematic doping programme of the DDR was exposed, the coaches jumped ship and trotted out the familiar ‘pressure from above/only following orders’ excuse as they looked around for new positions. Jürgen Gröbler, a man who admits to passing information on to the Stasi, arrived in Britain in 1991 and masterminded the development of the Team GB rowing programme; coaching crews to gold in every Olympics since.

The incredible exploits of Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent were lauded in the UK to the extent that Sir Steve was the man selected to hand the torch to the young generation at the 2012 opening ceremony. As in East Germany, the rowers blazed the trail; remaining at the vanguard claiming four gold’s, two silvers and three bronzes in London - making them the most successful Olympic rowing team for a second successive Games.

In the current climate, any sudden improvement in form is bound to make people suspicious - unless you are a British journalist covering Team GB. When Algerian Taoufik Makhloufi destroyed a quality field in the 1500 metres, most papers and media outlets spoke in code and talked about how it had raised eyebrows. When the less media savvy Ye Shirwen of China smashed the 200m Individual Medley record and directly addressed the ‘drug smears’, they were free to dispense with the metaphors and repeat the hearsay as news.

As in East Germany, the rowers blazed the trail

By common consent, cycling is the most drug addled sport on the planet. Over the last two decades, the scandals that have surrounded the Tour de France in particular have destroyed its integrity. Even those who have never failed a test, such as the iconic Lance Armstrong, are judged by many as guilty by association. The doping culture is widely viewed as endemic and inescapable.

Over the last decade, Great Britain has come from nowhere to become the premier cycling nation on Earth: winning eight gold’s in London and taking the top two places in the 2012 Tour de France. During this meteoric rise, the eyebrows of the British press have remained unmoved.

In 2007, when his Cofidis team pulled out of the Tour following a drug scandal, Bradley Wiggins said: "You cannot blame people for doubting the credibility of the sport for the next five, six or seven years." Five years on, Wiggins had improved beyond recognition and he and his fellow Sky riders were compared to Armstrong’s dominant US Postal squad, prompting the mod to change his tune, dismissing people who suggested that doping could be a factor as "fucking wankers."

In terms of international prestige, the all-conquering cyclists score very low. France is the nation with the best understanding of the sport. France’s cycling team director Isabelle Gautheron claimed that Team GB’s success in the sport must be down to their bikes having "magic wheels" and 70% of respondents to a L’Equipe poll believed that the British cyclists had been ‘tainted by cheating”. Realising that a bit of Frog bashing would play well with his base, David Cameron got involved, saying: "I think they found the Union Jacks on the Champs Elysee a bit hard to take."

Bradley Wiggins said: "You cannot blame people for doubting the credibility of the sport for the next five, six or seven years."

While glossing over deliberate crashes in the Velodrome and not noticing the dramatic physical changes in some British riders, the happy and gloriously supportive BBC were quick to point the finger on other occasions. After spinning the ridiculous lie that the tactical battle in the men’s road race was a case of everyone ganging up to make sure the plucky Brits didn’t win, the commentators were less than impressed with the eventual victor.

The papers followed their lead, with the Mail labelling Alexandr Vinokurov as; ’an unpopular former blood doping cheat from Kazakhstan.’ The implication was that a 38 year old foreigner must be getting some illicit help to win. Obviously, when the same reporters are asking 36-year-old Saint Chris Hoy if he intends to tackle a sprint event in Rio in four years - we know it will be down to dedication, hard work and the right breakfast cereal.

Although our national obsession is football, where strikers over 30 are considered to be on the slide, the British have consistently accepted that Olympians over that age in events requiring speed and power are capable of improvement.

Even if we assume that Team GB are 100% drug free (and that would surely make them the only team in world sport to meet that standard), the idea that racking up the gold’s will impress anyone outside these shores is wishful thinking. Back in the 80s, we used to denigrate the East Germans as full-timers or, even worse, professionals. When one of our Corinthian toffs or Alf Tupperesque lads or lasses overcame them it was celebrated as a triumph for the true spirit of sport.

The Mail labelling Alexandr Vinokurov as; ’an unpopular former blood doping cheat from Kazakhstan.’

Amazingly, even though we have an elite set-up that is the envy of the world; this attitude still persists among many punters. Throughout the Olympics, any Chinese success was dismissed as the product of hot-housing. The perceived wisdom is that, in China, any promising youngster is snatched up by the authorities and coached full time at a centre of excellence. In other words, they do exactly what we do.

If our uncompromising approach to medal accumulation is not going to win us any friends abroad, the focus must be on the home front. East Germany coupled their Olympic assault with policies to encourage mass participation. Out of a population of 16 million, there were three million registered sports club members and fully trained coaches were available at all levels. Building up the talent pool was a priority.

The national teams existed to promote the ideology of the ruling regime. Every time they pulled away from their West Germany on the track, it was seen as another boost for socialism on the way to the inevitable victory over their decadent capitalist neighbours. Sporting success also softened the hardship of economic disaster. If they have no bread, let them eat gold.

In the golden age of the DDR, the goal of mass participation was also a touchstone of policy in the UK. The Universalist legend ‘Sport for All’, complete with a suitably crappy logo, hung from the new brutalist leisure centre’s that were hastily erected by local councils across the land. Blink and you could have been in Leipzig. These days, the gap between the elite and the masses is as wide as it ever been.

The perceived wisdom is that, in China, any promising youngster is snatched up by the authorities

All around the land, giant images of Jess Ennis stare down from billboards. Her winning smile and carved abs make her look like a member of a different species to the flabby Greggs goers passing below, in the same way that the idealised, muscular workers on Soviet era frescos bore no resemblance to the impoverished people scratching a living in the wrecked economies of Eastern Europe.

The propaganda tells us that the gold rush will inspire the nation to turn their backs on their sedentary lifestyles and get fit, but there is no evidence to support this. Hockey remained a minority activity despite the Seoul 88 gold and there was no curling boom in the aftermath of Salt Lake City 2002. Jürgen Gröbler has transformed the rowers into regular world beaters, but rowing remains a pursuit for the privileged few.

In the lead up to Beijing, £235m was spent on preparing Team GB. They came home with 47 medals, 19 of them gold. In the four years since, most measures will tell you that participation levels have fallen and obesity levels continue to rise. The key to improving participation levels is investment at grassroots, but this is where we diverge from the East German model.

Sport for All is a forgotten dream. In the current climate of slashing expenditure to the bone, the chances of any government finding significant funds for community sport are minimal. When quizzed on the sporting legacy of the games, David Cameron spouts some non-committal stuff about a competitive ethos in schools but the truth is that grass roots sport will continue to be run by the same well-meaning volunteers who struggle along at the moment.

All around the land, giant images of Jess Ennis stare down from billboards

East London will benefit from a few showpiece facilities, including the Lee Valley White Water centre - so at least our home grown English terrorists won’t have to schlep all the way to Wales for their pre-attack bonding sessions in future.

Many of the golden sports are simply inaccessible to normal folk. Take away everything boat, gun and horse related and things that require a nearby Velodrome and you are pretty much left with boxing, taekwondo and running. Although continued elite success appears to have little or no impact on the health of the nation, the cash keeps flowing to the few.

Olympians who do not meet their targets are in danger of being kicked off the gravy train and left to slum it with the rest of us. On Sunday, Liz Nicholl, Chief Executive of UK Sport unapologetically told the BBC: "I think that the no compromise approach we have taken has been really, really good. It's very clear. It's not funding for everybody, it's funding for the best."

Sport for all has been replaced by sport for a select few. A further £264m was spent on our athletes before London and Cameron has pledged that the money supply is secure. He told the BBC interviewer that it was vital for our sailors to visit the waters off Brazil in each of the years leading up to Rio 2016. Naturally, our faithful state Olympic station greeted this as a good use of scarce resources in a recession.

Take away everything boat, gun and horse related and things that require a nearby Velodrome and you are pretty much left with boxing, taekwondo and running

There is no opposition to this policy. When the BBC asked Ed Miliband if the £125m a year to be spent on continuing the gold chase was money well spent he said: "The Olympic games can inspire a country in a way you can’t put a price on" and he urged the parties to come together to take the politics out of the issue. Since the lottery came into being, it has been easy for any politician to chuck money at sport. Lottery funded athlete is a misleading term as it masks the extra spend the government kicks in.

Major invented it, Blair and Brown both ran with it and it was the owl faced toff Cameron who was lucky enough to be the holding the home Olympics parcel when the music stopped. In a country that believes in nothing anymore, the chance to present a TV moment that unites us behind the union flag is irresistible. If you were a conviction free politico dedicated merely to getting elected - what would you see as a better use of a few million: a picture with Victoria Pendleton or keep a few swimming pools and sports halls open?

Forget any pretensions about legacy - now that the public have been convinced that someone who was born on the same bit of land as them making a horse walk backwards in time to music is a matter of importance, it is a feat that must be repeated every four years. Like the Jubilee, Royal Weddings and Diana’s funeral; this gubbing of the foreigners is a ritual that the public have bought into and they want more.

The ‘Team G-B’ chant will make the faces of the world frown in unison - as the hateful ‘U-S-A’ rallying call has for years. You can pump it up as a proud resurgence of national identity or dismiss it as faux militarism or plastic fascism, but it is a real phenomenon and woe betide those involved when the medal count drops. The powers that be much prefer a populace that is wrapped in the flag rather than burning it. If it takes Mo Farah Saturday nights to achieve this, then so be it.

"The Olympic games can inspire a country in a way you can’t put a price on"

East Germany’s sporting push was meant to further the cause of socialism. The Team GB project lacks any such ideological drive but looks set to last far longer. We will become less popular abroad as a nation as we come to represent the ugly side of sport that we as a nation used to rail against. Obviously, the hopelessly jingoistic media will only report the red, white and blue side of the story.

To hit the targets set by UK Sport, associations will become more ruthless and unsympathetic. The concentration on sports we can win medals in will actually narrow choice. As has been shown consistently, success at the Olympics will have no effect on the levels of participation and will not affect the health of the nation positively. In fact, diverting funds to the elite may harm sport at grass roots level.

Team GB are an efficient medal winning machine - loved by politicians and supported by papers and a state broadcasting apparatus that welcomes these upbeat space fillers when the footballers and parliament are on holiday. In four years, the time difference will mean we can once more unite as a nation, get the late night beers and pizzas in, crash out on the settee and enjoy the fruits of our sports development policy live from Rio in HD.

More great Olympic related articles

How The Closing Ceremony Ended Twitter's Love Affair With London 2012

Jessica Ennis' Bum & 14 Things We'll Really Miss About The Olympics (And 5 We Won't)

Blur At Hyde Park: The Perfect Send Off For Them And The Olympics

We Don't Believe In God Or The Queen So Let's Have A New National Anthem

Click here for more stories on Football and Sport

Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter

Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook