Hugh Matheson
More Power: The Story of Jurgen Grobler: The most successful Olympic coach of all time

If the speed required to win an Olympic gold medal is 100 per cent, then all training over a measured distance can be expressed as a percentage of gold-medal time. Grobler is well known for his accuracy in predicting the expected improvement in times for each event in the four years leading to the next Olympics. In the autumn of an Olympic year he will make his calculation taking all factors into account, and then correct the time for flat water conditions with no wind assistance or hindrance. The world best-time, usually set in a tight race by one of the best crews in the most favourable following wind, is inevitably much faster than the Olympic gold target. Grobler imported this systematic method to the British team when he arrived at Leander in 1991, having used it with his quadruple scull ten years before. Once the gold-medal standard is set, the coach has a baseline to measure all training, and once he has followed one or two super-compensation cycles he knows how his athletes can be expected to perform.

East Germany’s first generation of athletes trained in its pioneering use of sport as an instrument of foreign policy raced in Mexico in 1968 and retired after Munich in 1972. Four years later the men’s team for the Montreal Olympics looked different, with more opportunities for athletes to push up into the team. Grobler wanted the best of the Magdeburg boys to be among them. In addition to Güldenpfennig and Winter, he had Weisse. He took these three to national trials and formed the quadruple for the world championships in Nottingham in 1975. The final crew, which won the national trials easily, had Güldenpfennig at stroke and Weisse in the number-two seat. His new protégé Winter was selected in the singles and won the bronze medal behind the brilliant but inconsistent Peter-Michael Kolbe of West Germany and the ‘lone wolf’ Irishman, Seán Drea. Joachim Driefke and Jürgen Bertow who had been in the inaugural world-championship quads took the silver medal behind Norway in the double sculls. These results made Ulli Schmied’s point that a gold in the quads was the more certain and easier option.

In a nation where success in international sport was the most praiseworthy achievement a citizen could manage, this shuffling to stay out of the top three, but to finish in the top seven, was almost comic. The presiding genius who somehow ensured that he had most of his club members in the crew and was thus selected to coach them at the world championships and Olympics was ‘Schweinsdick’ Grobler.

There were fifteen trainers in SC Magdeburg when he arrived straight after graduation in 1970, but Grobler soon asserted himself and began to dominate the coaching set-up. When the authors visited the club in June 2017 – on the day before some of the buildings put up at the time of maximum investment by the regime were to be pulled down – they found a group of men in their seventies who had been elite rowers at the time Jürgen arrived. They were reminiscing around a table in the upstairs office, with a half-empty case of beers at their feet. They remembered him as just one of the coaching team – “he was nothing special at first” – but, with frequent breaks to argue about how hard they did or did not have to work and who was in the crew when they won the championships, they gradually recalled the socially adept, seemingly artless man who always spotted the coming talent and then trained it to perform at the highest level. They also remembered how Hörst Häckel, one of the first-team coaches, had taken two of the club’s boys, Friedrich-Wilhelm Ulrich and Manfred Kässner, in the coxless pair to win the world junior championships in 1971 to make SC Magdeburg’s first success on the international stage. Jürgen found another club member to take the first Olympic honours in 1972, and a year after that he had nailed his personal flag to Ulrich and Kässner. Perhaps Häckel had meant it to work out like that, perhaps not. The former rowers had a shrewd idea that Grobler would abide by whatever imperatives the world he lived in required: if success, and the space required to achieve it, was reached by being a member of the party or by paying attention in the daily political education classes, Grobler would conform unobtrusively.

The system needed both the coaches who would tune the engines for its success and it needed plenty of engines ready and willing to be trained. Jan Frehse, later a national and a junior world champion, describes how he was recruited by SC Magdeburg at the age of 14. After a class at his school’s gymnasium a representative from the club asked the assembled pupils: ‘Who here is 1m 80cm tall?’ Frehse was measured as 1m 86cm and asked if he wanted to become an elite sportsman by joining the rowing programme. He says in that winter of 1976–7 there were too few large youngsters in the rowing clubs of the district, so all the schools were searched for suitable candidates. Frehse spent his spring holidays at the club with nineteen other boys. They were measured by strength tests, running competitions and their first attempts at rowing a boat. When Frehse finished top of the group he was subjected to more tests, including a prediction of his fully grown height that turned out to be accurate at 1m 94cm. He was told that rowers from SCM ‘always fulfil their performance orientated mission.’

Throughout the history of the GDR and up to the present day, the Magdeburg club was best known for its handball teams which have been out of the top spot in Germany only rarely since it was founded in 1959. But on his arrival in the club’s rowing arm, standing on the Großer Werder island in the Elbe in the heart of Magdeburg, Grobler found ‘a boat house and a river and nothing else.’ By his intervention a hostel and a state-of-the-art fitness centre were added. It would be wrong to attribute all of this success to Jürgen. He was part of a team of thirty people at the club: fifteen trainers, two administrators, two boat-builders, two drivers, three physiotherapists, a nurse, two doctors and two cooks. The reputation of the club’s education section, which looked after the children who had been taken out of normal school to be trained as athletes, was high too.

The structure of elite sport in East Germany originated in the Politbüro, was encouraged by the SED’s secretary Walter Ulbricht, and driven by the Ministry of State Security, known universally as the Stasi. The Stasi guided every enterprise whether industrial or social. It commanded the scarce resources and directed them where the Politbüro demanded. Every successful person in any walk of life was a member of the party, and every place of work and sports club had at least one informer. According to his personal Stasi file, Jürgen was first approached by the party in 1973 and is recorded as having been recruited in 1975. That means that he was not embarrassed into informing by being caught out in a misdemeanour. Such an occurrence would have made recruitment immediate, a sentence of guilt by blackmail. Instead, he and his Stasi handlers took their time, and he began informing quietly eighteen months after the first approach. He was given the lightest disguise possible with the codename ‘Jürgen’.

Grobler’s party membership, status as an informer and coaching ability were all crucial to obtaining investment and ensuring appropriate support for athletes at the spearhead of the national reputation. From the 1972 Munich Olympics to Moscow in 1980, the coach’s loyalty to Magdeburg athletes was his prime motivation, while his national responsibilities increased.

* *

If the men’s quadruple scull was what would now be called a ‘gimme’, the men’s coxed pair was the hardest and slowest boat in the regatta. The world champions in 1975 at Nottingham were Jörg Lucke and Wolfgang Gunkel and it was assumed that they would proceed seamlessly to the Montreal Games. But they were beaten in the East German trials by two Magdeburg men trained by Jürgen – at least after he had taken them from Häckel. Friedrich-Wilhelm Ulrich was a world-champion junior and Harald Jährling had won the Spartakiade – an exclusively East German youth championships – in the coxless pairs in 1972. Lucke was 34 at the time of the trials and Gunkel was 28, while the pretenders were both 22 that summer. It was an enormous coup and piece of cheek that put SC Magdeburg and Grobler even more firmly on the map.

Once selected, the team flew to a training camp at Sudbury on Lake Ontario, Canada, and spent weeks in acclimatisation and intense training leading up to the taper, during which the last super-compensation cycle was completed and the athletes recovered in time to arrive at the Olympic final in the highest possible state of fitness. There is one comic footnote in the GDR rowing story in the Stasi report on the 1976 team which lists the competitors, the entourage and – more important than the event they have trained for over a lifetime – their membership, or otherwise, of the party. Also listed is the duration and destination of telephone calls outside East Germany and other trivia that obsessed the Stasi. Buried in the notes on conversations with girls in Copenhagen is an urgent message to the managers of the rowing team to destroy their stocks of Oral Turinabol, Clomiphen and other anabolic steroids before leaving Sudbury for Montreal and the Games. The GDR boxing team had arrived in Montreal with the pills in their baggage, and to avoid detection they had been obliged to tear off the Jenapharm labels and throw everything into the St Lawrence river. The rowers were instructed not to make the same mistake.

Once they reached the Montreal finals, both Jürgen’s crews exhibited his even-paced tactic demonstrated in Munich four years earlier. The quadruple scull, stroked by Güldenpfennig, tussled with the Russian quad for the first three 500-metre segments of the course with just fractions of a second separating them. Then in the last quarter the East Germans maintained their pace as the Russians faded, and the GDR quad took two seconds off the Soviet Union to win by half a length. In the coxed pair, Jährling and Ulrich came off the start slowly into the headwind and were seemingly stuck in third place until the 1500-metre mark, before sustaining then raising their race pace at the close to finish two seconds clear of the field. Grobler had seen his crews take the first two of his extraordinary collection of gold medals.

* *

Of little concern to Grobler in Montreal were the shoots of a revolution growing in Britain. Bob Janoušek, the two-time Olympic bronze medallist, had trained at Charles University in Prague to a similar curriculum to the one in Leipzig but with less Marxist-Leninism or biochemistry of testosterone. Czechoslovakia had its big crisis with communism in 1968, and in 1969 Janoušek was allowed to take up the offer of a job from the Amateur Rowing Association (now British Rowing). His family came with him on the understanding that they would not be allowed to return to Czechoslovakia. When he arrived in England, he wrote a training programme for international athletes which adapted tried-and-tested East European methods. After a year, however, he found that nobody was following it and that the British national team’s results were as bad as ever. Where, in odd cases, a crew and a coach could be found who did manage the long endurance training, there was an increase in lower-back injuries since the change of style required building up muscles and joints to take the stress, which meant a different regime from that of the traditional style of rowing in England.

After the debacle of the gale-torn 1973 world championships in Moscow, Janoušek decided that he would coach a national squad crew himself. He redesigned the system around training once a day after work, starting at 6 p.m. and attempting to be back in the boathouse in two hours. In an hour and a half of useful training he squashed as much as he could from the four- to five-hours system he had learned while reading sports science at Karlovy University and as a rower in Prague. The programme meant masses of intense work to build up lactic acid in the joints and pushing his men to exhaustion on every piece of work. Because they had not developed strong enough back muscles to lift their body and boat up from a long lean forward, Janoušek trained his crew to sit upright and use the sliding seat to compress their legs, so that the buttocks touched the ankles at full compression over the foot stretcher. From there they started the pull of the stroke with an explosive lift of the legs and the back together. Janoušek’s trademark call was ‘Smash it in’. His technique was the epitome of the Kernschlag (solid stroke with a hard beginning) style as opposed to the Schubschlag (thrust stroke) style around which all the East German boats, training, diet and medicine were designed.

After one winter of this method Janoušek took his squad to Mannheim to race in the docks over a slightly short course of 1800 metres for the first international regatta of the 1974 season. His coxed and coxless fours beat both East and West Germans at a canter on the first day. Combined as an eight on the second day, Janoušek’s crew was beaten by the West Germans when they tried to row in the same style at thirty-six strokes to the minute, using fewer, stronger strokes to cover the distance. Janoušek drew the squad together on the following Monday and told them they would never win against endurance-trained athletes unless they learned to race at forty strokes to the minute for the whole distance. They did so. Janoušek’s eight developed very high speeds and generally won races by sprinting to the front and holding on in fast conditions, but in long slow races against a headwind, they tended to lose against endurance-trained crews. Janoušek knew that his methods devised to meet the need of those in full-time employment might fail in a race that favoured endurance over speed. But he also knew that, in the unsupported world of British sport, there was no other way.

In Montreal, Janoušek’s eight led the final until the East German crew pipped them at the post. Mike Hart and Chris Baillieu also won a silver medal in the double sculls, in their case ahead of East Germans but behind Norwegians.

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The Moscow Olympiad (#ulink_96df5bbb-55b8-5297-84b4-f93ce45995d1)

‘In New Zealand it was a unique occasion for any Westerner to witness the East German rowing team actually skiving. Despite this, the regatta yielded the usual crop of medals for the GDR.’

Jürgen Grobler’s niche in the East German hierarchy was irreversible after his double gold-medal success in Montreal and his ever-strengthening programme at SC Magdeburg that pushed new, competitive athletes to the verge of national selection. By now it was engrained in East Germany’s strategy that after each Olympic Games the tactics for the next cycle were subjected to the full Marxist dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis in the following January. The predicted gold-medal times were set and the training of the elite squad switched to the new standard at a new intensity. By luck or judgement the Magdeburg scullers finished trials in the right spots to earn places in the quadruple scull for the 1977 world championships to be held in Amsterdam, while the single and double scullers hailed from Rostock, Halle and Berlin.

Thanks to the universal style and Klaus Filter’s rigging adjustments, the new quad was remarkably uniform, with Martin Winter and Wolfgang Güldenpfennig as bookends. The post-Olympic year is often the season when athletes retire or take a year out. In the West they needed to pass exams or earn money, while in the East they were pushed underwater by young bullies coming up behind them. For example, only two members of the British eight that had beaten East Germany into fourth place in 1974 and had finished second in Montreal continued to row in 1977. One of them, Jim Clark, took a silver medal in a pair with newcomer John Roberts. The other, Tim Crooks, finished fourth in the single sculls. His switch from eights to singles, sweep to sculling, was regarded as remarkable and a move that the East Germans would never have allowed.

The East Germans cleaned up in Amsterdam, taking five out of eight gold medals in the men’s events. Curiously, Grobler’s Magdeburg coxed pair of Jährling and Ulrich, Montreal Olympic champions, were beaten into second place by a couple of even bigger Bulgarians. The major upset in 1977 was the win by the British double scullers Mike Hart and Chris Baillieu who had followed their own idiosyncratic path since winning the Boat Race for Cambridge a decade before. They took two seconds off the East Germans Rüdiger Reiche and Ulli Schmeid. This world medal was Britain’s first gold since the London Olympics of 1948.

* *

East Germany had no need to search out British crews when Jürgen Grobler began coaching at international level in 1972. The first time the East Germans had taken notice of Brits was at Mannheim regatta in 1974 when Bob Janoušek entered two British fours which beat the components of the GDR eight. Janoušek had been one of the first East Europeans to take a senior job in the West. He brought success to British crews by using the super-compensation cycle combined with a precise and cleverly worked-out style that combined the skills of men moulded in a variety of club traditions to train in his squad.

An exit from communist society as achieved by Janoušek was denied to that generation of East Germans. The carrot that brought them home from trips abroad was the high standard of daily life that they enjoyed over the ordinary citizen. As the years passed and the East German economy performed less well in relation to the West, this became more marked. Few athletes saw a better life for themselves outside their ever-generous and grateful state. Retribution for flight was swift and tortuous on families and even on scant associates of defectors. People caught trying to cross the fence were shot. Border guards were brutal, starving and beating their dogs to increase the viciousness with which they chased and ravaged anyone found in the vicinity of the fence. The state authorities did not get the irony that anyone who chose not to share in their ‘socialist happiness’ would be shot for being unhappy. The only rower to defect and quit the good life was Matthias Schumann, who won gold in the eights at the 1978 world championships. He absconded in 1981 when racing in Amsterdam, and settled in Dortmund, West Germany, and worked as a sports reporter and photographer. He does not discuss the cost to his relations left behind in East Germany.

* *

The prospect of the 1978 world championships at Lake Karapiro on the North Island of New Zealand was enticing for anyone held behind the Iron Curtain. It meant at least six weeks abroad and would be the most prolonged taste of life on the other side that they would experience. Grobler took the quadruple scull – this time with Martin Winter in the number-three seat behind Frank Dundr at stroke – and duly won.

Karapiro Lake is formed behind a hydroelectric dam in the Waikato River. Coaches were unable to use motor launches because of restrictions to conserve the wonderful, wild nature of the site. There was no waterside path for cyclists either, so the best that coaches could do was to set up a deck chair camp on a prominent hill and observe training through binoculars. In the fortnight before competition, East German crews covered their normal massive number of kilometres per day at low intensity, and were instructed to follow the river upstream and out of sight of the coaching team and its Stasi informers.

The British spare man at Karapiro had been a member of Janoušek’s 1976 eight and had recently followed Tim Crooks in converting from rowing to sculling. He wanted mileage to develop the new skill and was following a similar training programme to the East Germans. About a week before the start of racing, when he was far upstream of the course, he rounded a sharp bend into a steep-sided, sheltered cove to find the entire GDR team sitting in their boats and quietly enjoying a long rest – while their coaches imagined they were grinding out the obligatory daily paddling ration of 35 km. It was a unique occasion for any Westerner to witness the East German rowing team actually skiving. Despite this, the regatta yielded the usual crop of medals with the men taking five golds and two silvers in eight events and the women three golds and one silver in six events.

* *

The international federation had awarded the championships in the year before the Moscow Olympics to Bled in Slovenia. Slovenia was the richest province in the state of Yugoslavia and resembled its western neighbour, Austria, more than the rough side of the Iron Curtain. The East German contingent performed as before, with nine golds between the men and the women. Grobler’s quadruple scull won, with his Magdeburg oarsman Peter Kersten at bow, while the double scull with Martin Winter at stroke finished third. Because Frank and Alf Hansen of Norway competed in the double sculls at almost every championships from 1972 to 1979 and usually finished first or second, it was an event that was hard for East Germany to be sure of a medal, and so the preference for a place in the quadruple sculls became even more marked. Grobler had to innovate little in these years to keep his golden record.

If the Politbüro generated an imperative of success over the hated capitalist Federal Republic of Germany in the 1972 Olympics, the target for the 1980 Games in Moscow was the Soviet Union. The USSR treated East Germany as a vassal, a tiny buffer state on the edge of the Russian empire. The East Germans set out to capture Soviet gold on Russian flat water. For the Moscow Games the stakes were high: to finish third in the table, and closer to the masters than before.

Grobler was still attached to his club athletes at Magdeburg. His coxed pair of Harald Jährling and Friedrich-Wilhelm Ulrich, steered by Georg Spohr, was a club crew that even when missing selection as a pair usually found seats in an eight or a four. In 1980 they hit form and reached Moscow under Grobler’s charge. Peter Kersten – who had been in the quadruple scull and in and around the top group of scullers and who was, like Wolfgang Güldenpfennig, on the small side – won the trials and took the single-sculling spot. Martin Winter was allotted the stroke seat in the quad.

Preparation for Moscow was disrupted on 20 January 1980 when the US president, Jimmy Carter, decided to use the Olympics as a bargaining counter to persuade the Soviet Union that its December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan should stop and an immediate withdrawal follow. Carter said that the United States would boycott the Games unless the Soviet Union withdrew its army. An American boycott posed no threat to any of Grobler’s athletes, but much depended on whether West Germany and Norway aligned themselves with the Americans.

While argument raged, the rowing nations continued to train through the spring and summer, culminating at the traditional last try-out before the championships at Lucerne regatta. Peter-Michael Kolbe of West Germany and the Hansen brothers of Norway were on stunning form, and their eventual withdrawal from Moscow led to speculation as to whether the Olympic results would have been the same without Carter’s action. The US president declared that any US citizens who travelled to compete would find their passports revoked on return. In Britain, prime minister Margaret Thatcher made similar noises but parliament allowed individual governing bodies to make their own decisions. The Amateur Rowing Association – amid much opprobrium and in the teeth of its president Christopher Davidge’s conviction that it should drop out – went to Moscow anyway, but on a shoestring after its sponsors withdrew. There was almost no government money in British Olympic sport then. Ironically, in spite of her criticism of those who defied her wish and competed, Mrs Thatcher appointed the cox of the eight, Colin Moynihan, as her minister for sport in 1987.

The one beneficiary of the boycott was Henley regatta, which obtained a stunning last-minute entry for its Grand Challenge Cup. Four teams which boycotted Moscow – the United States, Norway, West Germany and New Zealand – fielded eights in Henley’s premier event. The US defeated New Zealand in a thumping final.

The Hansens and Kolbe competed in the Grand at Henley, but were spitting with anger at the wreckage of their careers. The politicians who did the wrecking were too short-sighted to understand that a decade of war in Afghanistan would drain the Russian treasury, much as Vietnam had drained the United States a decade earlier. It was the reforming president, Mikhail Gorbachev, who pulled his country back from Kabul in 1989 after ten years of engagement. Within a year his Soviet empire had collapsed.

Although Moscow was the least glamorous Olympics of his career, Grobler was satisfied that his crews had peaked at the right time. He might have been surprised that his single sculler, Kersten, was beaten by Vasily Yakusha, a Belorussian competing for the Soviet Union. Yakusha had finished last in the Bled final a year earlier. He came from fourth place at the 1500-metre point in a close field, and swept through in the last 500 metres to take the silver behind the Finn Pertti Karppinen who had led from gun to tape.

When Grobler came home to Magdeburg and reviewed his career and its numerous gold medal successes, he was in a strong position to decide for himself where ‘Schweinsdick’ should go next.

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East Berlin (#ulink_92464319-078e-5fcf-b8a4-a380184f108c)

‘Grobler was the most curious one who reads, listens and tries everything.’


Jürgen Grobler’s status among the East German team coaches had risen because the crews he was responsible for performed well and his application of the methods and science of rowing and sculling was as good as anyone’s.

In the months after each Olympics the GDR trainers, medical researchers, boat-builders, biomechanics, dieticians – all the members of the Committee – wrote reviews of the training and results of the past four years and made their proposals for the next cycle to be presented and discussed in a grand wash-up meeting, usually held in the following January. It was at this meeting that the next batch of gold-medal times were predicted and the baseline set for the trainers to work from. In 1981 it was the route map from Moscow to Los Angeles, with three world championships as marker posts along the way.

The men’s and women’s teams were run separately, although they shared most of the facilities. Hans Eckstein took charge of the men’s team and Grobler became director of the women’s squad. Eckstein was six years older than Grobler and, like him, a graduate of the German College of Physical Culture in Leipzig. Unlike him, Eckstein was a two-time national champion in eights and fours. Grobler rowed competitively from the age of 16 up to the student championships, but his rowing had been subordinate to his teenage dream of becoming a cameraman, which was quelled when he realised that fewer than four film graduates were required each year in East Germany. But the GDR was offering hundreds of openings for graduates in sports science. Strategically wise even in his teens, Grobler responded to the laws of supply and demand in what was, nominally, a purely command economy when, aged 19, he enrolled at Leipzig.

Ten years after his graduation Grobler was one of the top two operating coaches under Dr Theo Koerner, the chief executive, whom he regarded as one of his greatest influences. The other was Eckstein who had been his instructor during teaching practice at SC Enheit Dresden. That Jürgen took the director role for the women’s squad is attributed by some to the canny ‘Schweine Schlau’ character that realised the probability of more international medals equalled the reward from a grateful state of a higher standard of living. He was expected to produce consistent success in the six Olympic events available. At the 1979 championships East German women had won three golds and three silvers, and at the 1980 Olympics one better with four golds, a silver and a bronze, so this was a daunting target and in his first season as director the team flopped, if only by its own dominant standards.