Skip to main content
Original Issue


East Germany's girls smashed seven world records and won 10 of 14 events in the world swimming championships

Shirley Babashoff climbed out of Belgrade's Tasmajdan pool and burst into tears. Teammate Deena Deardurff put on her sweat suit and disappeared into a nearby park, where she walked dejectedly beneath the great domes of St. Mark's Eastern Orthodox Church. Competing last week in the first aquatic world championships, Babashoff and Deardurff had just swum freestyle and butterfly respectively on a U.S. women's 400-meter medley relay team that was roundly beaten by four gifted swimmers from East Germany. "I just wanted to be alone," Deardurff said later. "I was astonished. I couldn't believe anybody could go that fast."

The medley relay was the most stunning of a number of outstanding swims by East German women at a competition that also included world championships in water polo, diving and synchronized swimming. The big splashoff was staged at four pools scattered around the Yugoslav capital, the handsome facilities festooned with billboards for Coppertone and Electrolux as well as for the people's state lottery. Unfazed by these blatant concessions to free enterprise, the East German medleyists put on a display of pure collectivism to leave their American rivals a gaping eight body lengths behind. The GDR girls broke seven world records in the meet, with two of them coming in the medley relay: a lead-off 1:04.99 by 14-year-old Ulrike Richter and a 4:16.84 for the race as a whole. Only opening legs of relays count officially as records, yet it was an awesome fact that the other GDR swimmers—breaststroker Renate Vogel, butterflyer Rosemarie Kother and freestyler Kornelia Ender—each swam the equivalent of a world record time, too.

All this raised the question of how a nation of 17 million, a second-rank power a few months ago, had so quickly moved to the top of women's swimming. Lifting their tots of slivovitz at the bar of the Hotel Metropol, some European sportswriters credited the GDR's success to mysterious wonder drugs while others echoed the sentiments of those U.S. girls who sourly referred to their German rivals as "a bunch of boys." This charge was belied, however, by the East Germans' provocative swimsuits, high-necked garments made of stretchy membrane-thin material. If bulging muscles were often in evidence, the snug suits revealed the girls poured into them to be bona fide in every other particular.

Whatever the reasons for its sudden prowess, the GDR left no doubt in Belgrade that it meant to dominate women's swimming as it does women's track. Its girls won 10 of 14 events, outscoring the U.S. for the women's team title 188-143. Reducing the competition to practically a dual meet, the Americans took three of the remaining four events, in each case at distances of 200 meters or more. This last fact drew from Gerd Barthelmes, general secretary of the GDR swimming federation, a vow that could scarcely be taken lightly. "We have done well here in the sprints," he said. "Now we must go home and do better in distance swimming."

It was fortunate for the U.S. that women's swimming was only part of the aquatic championships. The American men swimmers won eight of 15 events, easily outscoring the runner-up GDR 204 points to 97. The U.S.'s second-place finish to Italy in men's diving was due largely to Air Force Lieutenant Phil Boggs, who won the three-meter springboard. An all-California team came in fifth behind champion Hungary in water polo, while the U.S. won all three categories in synchronized swimming, a women-only sport that is rapidly gaining popularity even though, as one American coach admitted, "Some people still think we're sort of la-di-da."

Counting all sports, the U.S. took 15 of 37 gold medals, a respectable haul for a squad loaded with promising but extremely young athletes. With Mark Spitz and other U.S. stars retired, the men's swim team was short on experience, a weakness only partially hidden by a flowering of Spitz-style mustaches. Even the mauled American women could take heart that they did better than poor Australia. Having lost Shane Gould to retirement, the once-mighty Aussie girls finished no better than fourth in any event. U.S. girls still showed depth, raising hopes that in the distant, impenetrable future—which in swimming could be tomorrow morning—they will regain their accustomed glory.

It was this transient nature of swimming that prompted the 103-nation Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) to hold the world championships. Like the IAAF, which governs the other major international sport, track and field, FINA had been content to confine its world competition to the Olympics, but all that changed with last week's championships. "We felt that swimming needed exposure more often than every four years," explained FINA President Harold Henning, a dentist from Naperville, Ill. "It's common for some kids to peak too early for the Olympics and others too late." The next world championships are planned for Cali, Colombia in 1975 and the event will settle into a quadrennial, mid-Olympiad schedule—1978, 1982, and so on—after that.

In another show of independence on the eve of the world championships, FINA threatened to withdraw from the 1976 Olympics should the IOC eliminate more than three swimming events or, alternatively, if Montreal provides fewer than 9,000 seats for swimming—two eventualities the federation considers calamitous. By coincidence, the Belgrade meet came at a time when some Olympic critics were advocating decentralizing the Games into a series of just this kind of world championships. As a dry run, the FINA show was well organized, and went off with a minimum of acrimony. Israel's water-polo team was kept under heavy guard and, in welcome contrast both to Munich and to last month's turbulent World Student Games in Moscow, the Israelis were treated courteously and competed without incident.

The championships also fulfilled the avowed purpose of accommodating emergent swimmers, the best being American Jim Montgomery and Australian Steve Holland. The 18-year-old Montgomery, a 6'5", 190-pound freestyler—and free spirit—from Madison, Wis., finished no better than 23rd in any event at last year's U.S. Olympic Trials, but last week he amassed five gold medals, winning the 100 and 200 freestyles and swimming on three victorious U.S. relays. Bound for Indiana University, Montgomery shrugged off all mention of Spitz. "Come back and see me in three years with your Spitz comparisons," he said. The 15-year-old Holland, who is 5'10" and weighs 130 pounds, turned in a 1,500-meter freestyle race that in a single stroke—or, rather, a lot of them—broke his own world record, gave the Aussies their only gold medal of any kind and kept Californian Rick DeMont's week from being fully redemptive.

DeMont arrived in Belgrade as the most celebrated Olympian to be stripped of a gold medal since Jim Thorpe. He won the 400 freestyle at Munich only to have the victory nullified for taking a prohibited asthma medication, a mistake that has been laid to the U.S. team doctors. Under pressure from Olympic brass, he reluctantly returned his gold medal a few weeks ago and he wanted to forget the whole sorry affair.

"The world championship is important, but I'm not trying to get revenge for the Olympics," DeMont kept insisting. "What happens in Belgrade has nothing to do with Munich."

Still affected by asthma and related allergies—he switched to an acceptable drug after Munich—DeMont was so bothered by the downy pillows in the Hotel Slavija that he got rid of them. Then DeMont disposed of Australia's Brad Cooper in the 400. Cooper had been runner-up to DeMont at Munich and he received the gold medal by default after the American's disqualification. In a virtual rerun of their Olympic race, DeMont allowed Cooper to stay out front most of the way, relying on an accelerated flourish at the end. Remaining roughly at Cooper's waist—"that drives the other guy crazy"—he made his move with 50 meters to go, overtaking the Australian with long, efficient strokes that looked almost as if they were being performed in slow motion.

At the finish DeMont was clocked in a world-record 3:58.18, Cooper in 3:58.70—the first swimmers to break four minutes in the event. When the two mounted the victory platform, photographers asked Cooper to hold up De-Mont's hand, but the American balked. "They think we're boxers," he complained. "It's ridiculous."

Cooper also swam in the 1,500, but DeMont's chief worry in that race was Holland. The previously unknown Holland burst into prominence last month in Brisbane when he lowered the 1,500 mark by more than 14 seconds to 15:37.8 (SI, Aug. 20). Outgoing, hyperactive and possessed of a squeaky voice only now starting to deepen, Holland kept busy in the Slavija, playing cards and working his yo-yo, which has become a craze again in Australia. One day, inspired by the sight of 16-year-old teammate Mark Tonelli preparing for his monthly shave, Holland applied a razor to the fuzz on his own upper lip. It was the first time he ever shaved, and the more experienced Tonelli said, "It took Steve a bit but he did a real good job."

Holland required scarcely more time to negotiate 1,500 meters at the Tasmajdan pool. Propelled by a quick thrashing stroke that contrasted vividly with DeMont's measured arm action, he stormed ahead at 500 meters and gradually built a lead too large for the American, playing his usual waiting game, to overcome. Holland traveled the first 800 meters in a world-record 8:16.27 and reached the 1,500 mark in 15:31.85, reducing his world record by six more seconds. DeMont's second-place 15:35.44 was almost 16 seconds faster than his own personal best. But matters did not end there. Failing to hear the horn signaling the final lap, Holland swam an extra 105 meters in what amounted to an involuntary victory lap. "I thought the race was over but I wasn't game to risk stopping," he said. DeMont followed along, but was no closer at 1,600 meters than he had been at 1,500.

"You silly cow, you've gone too many," Holland's coach, Laurie Lawrence, shouted in his ear when Holland was making his turn at the 1,600 point.

Holland later said he thought Lawrence had said, "You've got two to go," and continued for another five meters, or until he heard a great deal of screaming. The screams weren't coming from Holland's mother, who was muttering, "I can't take much more of this."

For all of Holland's world-beating exploits, it was the East German women who fashioned the meet's most dramatic breakthrough. At Munich the U.S. took eight gold medals in women's swimming and Australia five, while East Germany's haul consisted of four silvers and a bronze. The only legitimate GDR star was backstroker Roland Matthes, who last week seemed a venerable figure in the presence of all the fresh-faced GDR Wundermädchen. Now 22, and slimly handsome, with a gold tooth, prominent Adam's apple and a twinkle in his eye, Matthes lives in Erfurt, where he attends a branch of Leipzig's College of Physical Culture. He also plays the drums and tools about either on his motor scooter or in a car he borrows from his father, a structural engineer.

Unbeaten for an astonishing six years in the backstroke, Matthes coasted to victory in the 100 at Belgrade in 57.47, after which he lowered his world record in the 200 to 2:01.87. Then he slipped on the pool deck and twisted his left ankle, an injury that kept him out of the 100 butterfly. If Matthes resented all the attention given the GDR women, he had certainly shown no sign of it when the team arrived in Belgrade and found a crowd of photographers waiting at the airport. As Matthes lingered in the background, 14-year-old Kornelia Ender gave him a playful tug.

"Sei doch nicht so schlampig"—Don't be such a slowpoke—she scolded. With a sign, Matthes dutifully schlamped forward to greet the press.

Ender, who held three world records going into the championships, was the most ballyhooed of the East German girls. She won the 100 butterfly and lowered her world mark in the 100 freestyle to 57.54, but not before being upset in the 200 individual medley by her 16-year-old teammate, Andrea Hubner. Hubner's 2:20.51 shattered Ender's world record and left her sulking for 24 hours. The East Germans also played who's-got-the-record in the 400 individual medley. Angela Franke, all of 15, was the world's best upon arriving in Belgrade, only to lose the race—and the record—to compatriot Gudrun Wegner, her elder by three years. The five-minute barrier had long been a formidable one in the event, but Wegner smashed well through it with a 4:57.51.

The emergence of so much talent at once is the result of a broad-based fitness program in which 90% of GDR children learn to swim by age 4. This enables the coaches to identify promising swimmers early. They also pay more attention to fluid mechanics and sports medicine than most U.S. coaches, and the brawn and explosive power of their women in Belgrade suggested that they are more heavily into weight training, too. Rumors that the GDR women take steroids were denied by Head Coach Rudolf Schramme, who discussed his team one night over a beer in the restaurant of the futuristic Putnik Hotel, where the GDR was billeted.

"Everybody wants to know our secret, but we have no secret," he said, trying to be heard over Serbian folk music played by a well-amplified combo. "For years we have watched the Americans. One thing we learned from them is to hold many, many meets, because swimmers must be competitively hardened. But there's also one difference. American coaches keep secrets from one another, but in Germany we pool our information." Schramme smiled. "For years we learn from the Americans and now they ask what our secret is."

The budding rivalry will resume when the GDR swimmers journey next summer to Concord, Calif. for a two-day meet with the U.S. Meanwhile, what with the Ulrike Richters, Kornelia Enders and Gudrun Wegners trooping ceaselessly to Tasmajdan's victory stand, some American swimmers, having heard it so often during the week, hummed along as a white-coated band played the GDR anthem, Auferstanden, Aus Ruinen.

Among its other effects, the Belgrade competition also made Bill Lee, North American manager for Speedo, the swim-wear firm, take another look at the East Germans' revealing swimsuits.

"Those suits are gross. You can see everything," Lee had said early in the meet, his moral indignation undoubtedly heightened by the fact that the suits were made by Porolastic, a European competitor. But a couple of days and several East German world records later, Lee disclosed that Speedo would soon be coming out with a similar line of its own.



GDR trio of Kornelia Ender, 14, Renate Vogel, 18, and Andrea Hubner, 16, revealed astonishing speed, musculature and femininity.



Rick DeMont of U.S., stripped of a gold medal at Munich for taking a prohibited asthma drug, won 400 at Belgrade in world-record 3:58.18.