Yesterday Germany’s Verena Sailer won the women’s 100 meter title in a PR 11.10. Not big headline news when you consider that seven women have run under 11.00 so far this season, and four of them have run under 10.90! Makes Sailer’s win seem rather pedestrian in comparison.
But when you take a look at the history of Global sprinting, European sprinting in particular, the win was rather huge. Because once upon a time Germany defined women’s sprinting. Starting with Renate Stecher (GDR) in the ‘70’s, the two Germany’s (there was an East and a West at that time) dominated just about every European and Olympic Sprint final heading into the 90’s. What was begun with Olympic wins in Munich and Montreal by Stecher and Annegret Richter (FRG) in the 70’s, became full on domination in the 80’s as East Germany exploded with stars including Marita Koch (10.83. 21.71, 47.60), Marlies Gohr (10.81, 21.74) , Barbel Wockel (10.95, 21.85, 49.56), and Silke Moller (10.86, 21.74).
The East Germans broke all the barriers and set all the records and became the talk of the sprinting world. They were unbeatable and their performances seemed other worldly. Koch’s WR of 47.60 in the 400 has yet to be approached, and their WR of 41.37 in the 4×1 is still the standard that the world is chasing a quarter of a century later. German dominance was set to continue into the 90’s with Katrin Krabbe winning the sprint double at the World Championships in Tokyo in ‘91 and teammate Grit Breuer taking silver in the 400. But then the walls came down – literally.
In October of 1990 the Berlin Wall came down, marking the end of two separate Germany’s as East and West became a unified nation. So Krabbe and Breuer were competing for a Unified German team in Tokyo. A team that did not embrace the old ways of the sport practiced by East Germany – ways that included systematic doping of it’s athletes. Krabbe and Breuer had received most of their training through this old system and ended up testing positive for Clenbuterol and receiving two year bans from the sport in 1992. With the Berlin Wall down and Germany Unified, we soon got information on just how the East German sports machine had operated. And the new Germany vowed to to do better.
Better in this case meant being clean, and a disappearance of the otherworldly performances of their predecessors. So the team that had won every European gold medal in the 100 from 1978 through 1990, could muster only a bronze in Helsinki in 1994 (Melanie Paske). That was the last medal won by a German in the flagship 100 meters at the European Championships until Sailer’s win yesterday. A win that ended a twenty year drought from the top of the podium in this event. So a significant win in my book because it marks the end of a drought of perseverance – twenty years of a country saying that they were going to compete the right way. Twenty years of enduring defeat, for a nation once known only for victory.
While many dismiss Sailer’s victory as just another stat from yesterday, I applaud her gold medal as a victory in the drug war. With all the negative headlines we’ve had in this sport regarding drugs in the past decade – BALCO, major names being banned from the sport, suspicion surrounding athletes and performances – we have an athlete from a nation once buried in the drug graveyard, emerge with a win. Clean. A gritty 11.10 that was gutsy and exciting. It wasn’t about the time, it was about the competition – the core of the sport. It wasn’t about records, or chasing the ultimate performances. It was about getting the win – and it was a beautiful thing to watch. At the end of the day, there was no head shaking, no wondering, no innuendo, no questions. Just several young ladies excited over their placings and for some new personal bests. And an athlete demonstrating that an entire nation can turn it around and do it right.
A victory in the war, and an example that says it can be done.