The Book Page

Looking inside GDR’s ‘miracle’ system

The Miracle Machine, by Doug Gilbert. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc. New York, 1980. $14.95.

The rise of East Germany to a world sporting power has been truly amazing. Allowed to compete for the first time as a nation in 1968, East Germany finished second only to the USSR in total medal standings at the Montreal Olympics, while a surprised United States finished third.

How is it possible for a country with slightly over twice the population of Ontario and a tenth the total land area to do so well on the world stage? The Miracle Machine by Doug Gilbert is an inside look at what makes the machine tick. What Gilbert found was not a technological miracle but miracles wrought by individuals.

The book was completed shortly before Gilbert’s untimely accidental death last summer at the Pan Am Games in Puerto Rico. One of the few Western journalists to travel extensively in East Germany, and an acknowledged admirer of the East German (German Democratic Republic, if you please) system, Gilbert talked with people throughout the GDR to find “the story behind the story”. Whether or not this makes him an “expert” on the GDR sport system is probably open to speculation. What the story does make for is interesting reading for almost everyone and a must read for anyone who considers themselves serious students of sport.

The book covers many facets of sport in the GDR, and attempts to explain how and why the “Miracle Machine” is so successful. East Germany is successful because sport is given a higher priority (in fact each citizen of the GDR is constitutionally guaranteed the right to participate in sport), which in turn leads to levels of mass participation unheard of in the West. Following along this line, emphasis is placed on coaching certification programs (developed by the famed Leipzig Institute), such that there are over 200,000 volunteer certified coaches available to sport and each of them is entitled to time off with pay for time spent in coaching related activities. In addition, medical research in the GDR is placed at the disposal of sport for applied research designed to aid athletic performance.

But the real miracle of the “Miracle Machine” according to Gilbert, is in the administration of sport in the GDR. The bureaucracy of sport functions in practice as it was planned on paper. The system does in fact work.

But rather than overwhelm the reader with a statistical potpourri and an avalanche of organizational charts, Gilbert’s book is about individuals involved in the GDR sport system. Such an individual is Kornelia Ender, the former Olympic swimming champion. In a interview with her and her equally famous husband, swimmer Roland Matthes, Ender mentions that she is currently involved in her two-year down-training phase. Under medical supervision, the same experts who made her into a world champion have accepted the responsibility to reverse the process.

Matthes describes his puzzlement at Western newspapers, some of which speculated that the marriage between the two former Olympic champions was state-arranged to produce future champions.

“Before the news of our engagement was known,” he says “some of them had written stories saying Kornelia would never be able to have children because of the changes the doctors had created in her system. Then, when they heard about the engagement they started to say this was something arranged by the government for the purpose of producing future athletes. How can they make up such nonsense?

Manfred Ewald, the omnipotent chairman of the GDR sport system, Dr. Heinz Wuschech worker of medical miracles for athletes, Klaus Huhn, sports editor of the Neues Deutschland, and many of the world famous athletes are interviewed. Their comments in turn are woven into the plot of a sports writer seeking the answer or answers as to why the “Miracle Machine” produces miracles.

If there is any flaw in the book it could be that Gilbert was a complete convert to the East German system and perhaps his enthusiasm for the GDR sporting structure sacrifices the objectivity essential to good journalism. However, the mere fact that a nation as small and relatively young as East Germany could come to dominate the sporting world in such a relatively short time is an indication of the results possible when politics and sport are welded inextricably together. That is the “miracle” of the “Miracle Machine”. Bob Neil

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