They won the inaugural World Championships in Athletics in Helsinki in 1983 and three times in this period the GDR notched up second position on the Olympic medal winners’ table. During these two decades their squads won over 200 gold medals, a phenomenal total when you consider that their population was only around 16 million.
Well, a phenomenal total if their leaders hadn’t insisted on selecting some of these sports stars when they were under ten years old, sending them to special state sponsored camps where they were put through gruelling physical training and equally strict ideological training, to ensure they were indoctrinated to believe that they were somehow living in a socialist utopia and to spout this propaganda whenever they competed abroad. Worst of all, though, was the doping programme they were made to participate in with their coaches insisting they take the Stasi approved steroid Oral-Turinabol, the youngsters being told they were vitamin tablets and ordered to never reveal to anyone, not even to tell their parents, that they were being given these pills or injections.
Females often returned to their homes from these camps with facial hair, deeper voices and, of course, increased muscle mass while boys experienced problems such as shrinking testes.
Now many of them display a range of problems that include chronic pain, infertility, depression and alcoholism. Some, like shot putter Heidi Krieger even changed sex due to the levels of Testosterone taken during these years and around 1,000 of these former athletes have just won a pay-out from the German Government, not that any money can compensate for what most of them had to endure.
So, why am I mentioning this in this blog?
Well, just out is the third in a series of albums released by Edinburgh label Unknown Capability Recordings titled Kosmischer Läufer: The Secret Music Of the East German Olympic Program 1972-83.
The story behind this series of albums is that they were composed and recorded by an East German, Martin Zeichnete, who experienced a brainwave while out running himself in the days after he first learned of a device known as the Stereobelt (a kind of proto Walkman) invented by the German born Andreas Pavel.
Zeichnete hit upon the idea that it could be helpful for the focus of runners to listen to music while training and even better if that music resembled the Krautrock sounds he sometimes heard from illicitly listening to stations in what was then West Germany, especially the pulsing, motorik rhythms of acts like Neu!
Think a kind of performance enhancing music if you like and all perfectly legal.
This hunch eventually led to him being employed by the East German Olympic Program where he quickly set out on the task of composing the tracks which the authorities agreed might help not only runners but other young sportsmen and women such as gymnasts and skaters. The government officially named the scheme State Plan 14.84L but Zeichnete and others nicknamed it ‘Projekt Kosmischer Läufer’ or in English, Cosmic Runner.
In a dank Berlin studio, Zeichnete usually utilised some primitive Soviet synths to create his version of West German kosmiche and he would constantly be observed by a state official as he worked on his ideas. Not ideal circumstances but bear in mind that before the fall of the Berlin Wall, citizens of any communist regimes had limited access to any kind of Western rock or electronic music.
The early seventies did see some liberalization of pop and rock music in East Germany but essentially it was seen as a cultural weapon that the capitalist and decadent West would happily like to see corrupt the socialist ideals of young people. Rock bands were tolerated and even relatively common in cities like Dresden and East Berlin but these acts were required to comply with official guidelines and draw the party line. Failure to do so meant a risk of imprisonment.
The project came to an abrupt halt with Zeichnete being given no explanation why although he believes it was probably due to his country’s decision to boycott the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 along with the other Soviet Bloc nations.
The music was considered the property of the state but some of it was smuggled out by Zeichnete and an engineer who occasionally worked on the project. In the early ’90s, the surviving tracks were transferred to digital although it was only two years ago that the first batch were released to a wider audience.
And I wonder what some of the GDR stars of track and field thought of the music? Did Marita Koch, whose 400 metres World Record set thirty years ago stands to this day, find it helpful while running to listen to Sandtrommel or Tonband Laufspur? Did hearing Die Lange Gerade make that final mile of training just that bit easier with its hypnotic groove?
Well I would be absolutely shocked if I found out that Koch, or any of her fellow Olympians had ever even heard it, let alone used it as a training aid.
Like many others I just don’t believe this far-fetched though imaginative tale. And a few listens to the albums reveals that they were unlikely to have been created with outdated synths in a third rate studio, the sound is far too pristine and Der Horraum, for example, clearly sounds like twenty first century post-rock but hey, that’s okay, I do like a clever hoax but file under Paul is dead, Klaatu were the Beatles (come to think of it, Walzer der roten Katze here does remind me of Little Neutrino in places), Jack and Meg White were siblings, and the KLF burnt a million pounds on the island of Jura.
Wait a minute, that last one might just have been true.
Would I have enjoyed these albums more if the story of Projekt Kosmischer Läufer was true?
Very possibly, but I won’t let that spoil my enjoyment. Die Lange Gerade is a truly inspired pastiche of Neu! while several of the other tracks channel Kraftwerk very successfully. I have now heard all three albums and would recommend each of them despite my inner sceptic.
For more on these releases click here.