While there is no doubt the Eastern Bloc nations dominated so many sports in international and Olympic competitions, often running away with the medal counts, the glorified example of supremacy that the propaganda machines wanted us to believe was merely a facade.
The Eastern Bloc nations used sports to project an image of a superior form of government by putting the full resources of the state into a sports machine that produced great athletes but at a serious price to those competitiors that wouldn't be known until years after their careers ended.
The dark side of sports in the Eastern Bloc was known mostly a few horror stories told by defectors who escaped to the west. What defectors told us only fueled suspicions that something was gruesomely wrong with the Eastern Bloc sports apparatus. The suspicions gave way to evidence when the Soviet Union and all its client states fell apart in the early 1990s, giving way to democratic societies with no resources to continue funding the sports machinery. With the fall came wholesale freedom to talk for the first time. One athlete after another began to expose the system for all that was wrong, talk that continues even today as the whispers of massive steroid abuse have become shouts in the headlines of newspapers throughout Europe. The stories began in the mid-1990s as one by one, East German swimmers and track stars still alive tell about it revealed sickening tales of how they were chemically abused by coaches and trainers whose only desire was to produce victories for the state in international competitions. For years there had been rumors that there were many genetic males force to have sexual reassignment surgery so they could compete as females at high levels for both the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries. Since the fall, there has been at least one confirmation of sexual reassignment with the story of a "female" Soviet shot putter who was actually a genetic male.
The stories of horrific abuse still dominate talk in the media when the topic of sports in the old Eastern Bloc is brought up. However, Rob Glass will be the first to tell you that not everything they were doing over there was necessarily bad. Check out the book shelf in his office. There is a copy of "Soviet Training Recovery Methods," a book he puts to constant use regularly in his role as Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Florida. That's just one source of the Soviet and Eastern Bloc training methods that he uses to design strength and conditioning programs for football players and all the other athletes at UF. In his 15 years as a strength and conditioning coach, Glass has seen the training regimen change dramatically, and the biggest change occurred when the Soviet Union broke up.
"Maybe the best way to say it is that we were in the dark ages over here back in the 1980s," said Glass in an interview in his office in the UF weight room Wednesday. "Oh there are still things that we were using back in the 1980s that we still use. Some things really don't change much at all. You lift weight, you get stronger. But the overall understanding of training has changed considerably because of what we have learned from them now that we have access to all the research they were doing."
The Eastern Bloc corralled its scientists, doctors, nutritionists, coaches and trainers into a huge research conglomerate devoted entirely to sports. Every breath an athlete took, every step, every move was documented. The athletes themselves were the guinea pigs in a race to prove to the world that the socialist state was superior to the rest of the world. As the research accumulated, the Eastern Bloc sports machine came to understand better than anyone else were the three key elements of athletes being able to perform at the highest levels - training, nutritional intake and recovery.
"Long before anyone else, they understood how these things worked together," said Glass. "The goal was to win championships and medals. They devoted huge resources to training and nutrition. Better than anyone else, they understood the role that proper recovery has in performance. Proper recovery is every bit as important as training properly."
Recovery is the time it takes for muscles and muscle groups to recover from fatigue. Lack of recovery is a key ingredient in so many debilitating injuries as well as a key reason some athletes go into prolonged slumps. Some injuries simply cannot be avoided - a hard hit on the football field to a leg that's planted and ready to cut, or a basketball player leaping high only to come down awkwardly on an opponent's foot, for example.
"Injuries are part of sports," said Glass, "and you just can't prevent all of them, but if you understand how to train people properly, how much rest is needed, what kind of nutrition is best, and what kind of stretching and things like that are needed to restore the muscles to a point where they can operate at a peak, you can avoid the nagging injuries which take away performance. The Soviets were years ahead of everyone in this area of sports research.
"When it comes to sports training, we have truly benefitted from the fall of the Soviet Union. Their research has been shared with us and it's opened new avenues to help us learn to train our athletes better."
While the Eastern Bloc benefitted from a huge state supplement to its research and training, there was indeed important research ongoing in the United States. There was no government agency overseeing the research and directing the sports teams, but at colleges and universities thorughout the US there was pioneering research that was making athletes bigger, stronger and faster. With the fall of the Soviet Union, years of research became available to American coaches, trainers and doctors. The combining of these volumes of research has brought about an explosion of positive change in the ability of strength and conditioning coaches to produce higher levels of performance in athletes.
A direct result of this combining of research has been real understanding of the energy systems that are required for an athlete to excel in a certain sport. This has resulted in programs that can literally turn a good athlete into a superior competitor by teaching methods that allow the athlete to run faster, jump higher or react quicker. Another key area has been the understanding of proper stretching, how the most effective stretching takes place after an athlete has warmed up, thus preventing the kind of micro-tears in muscles and connective tissues.
"We had research ongoing here in the US," said Glass, whose first strength and conditioning boss was John Stuckey at Oklahoma State, who was considered at the forefront of strength training. "I would say that when the Soviet Union fell, it kind of kick started the way we were thinking over here about training. We took a long look into what we were doing and we are still doing some of the same stuff, but we've incorporated so many things they were doing with our methods and that's also spurred more research. I have to say that things are really so much different now than they were 15 years ago. What is encouraging is the amount of research. It's unbelievable the amount of scientific research that has gone into strength and conditioning in the years since I started."
It wouldn't be right to call the strength training methods of 15 years ago primitive but there is continuous research that is creating newer, safer and more effective ways of preparing athletes for competition. The athletes today are bigger, run faster, jump higher, are more agile, and have better reflexes than the athletes of even 15 years ago. The UF football teams of the 1980s featured some of the largest offensive linemen in the country with an average size in the 285-pound range. The Gators will field an offensive line that averages well over 300 pounds per man in 2003.The difference is not only in the weight, but in the speed and agility. There was a time when size and speed were considered the ultimate measures of athletic ability, but that way of thinking has given way to an emphasis to athletes who also have greater flexibility, better reflexes and the ability to perform far more athletic maneuvers. Size and speed still matter, but there are other factors every bit as important.
"Now it is always going to be true that we'll look for the athlete who has the best combination of size and speed," said Glass, "but it's not simply about size and speed. The ultimate goal is athleticism. Yes, we're going to add muscle and take off fat. That's part of what we do, but we have to be careful not to overtrain kids. There's only so much muscle that you can put on that's beneficial. There are only so many tenths of a second we can take off a 40 time. We've got to get kids to move the right way, use their muscles the right way, to improve their reflexes, give them more endurance and teach them how to recover properly.
"In football, we've had to learn to train athletes in a position specific way. Lance Butler (offensive tackle) won't be using the same muscles the same way as Ran Carthon (tailback). The way we get Lance Butler ready to play is going to be much different than how we get Ran ready, or how we get Ingle Martin or Gavin Dickey (quarterbacks). Each position uses its muscles differently. These are all things that we've really brought forward in the past 15 years or so. We're really getting specialized in how we're training our athletes."
And it's not just football that has benefitted. Glass oversees seven assistants and he tries to match training assistants to sports with which they have familiarity, and hopefully some playing experience.
"Each sport has different requirements, and where we have really benefitted is that we've gotten a lot of research into the various sports so now we can design training programs for athletes that really get the athletes to perform at peak levels," he said. "Whenever possible, I want the assistant that we assign to a particular sport's athletes to have some background so he knows the movements and the muscles that are used most frequently."
In the late 1970s, steroid use became rampant, peaking in the late 1980s when Tony Mandarich of Michigan State, the second overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft, was the poster child for steroid abuse. In those days it seemed the motto of so many football teams was "better living through chemistry." Faced with a real crisis, the NCAA began to crack down with heavy penalties for steroid use. Each year since, testing for steroid use has become far more sophisticated.
"I'm sure we haven't eliminated steroid use, but the chances a kid can get away with using steroids becomes less and less every year," said Glass. "The testing is sophisticated enough that kids can't mask steroid use like they use to. The kids have found out they're not as sophisticated as the machinery we have to test them. Now the penalty for using is pretty harsh, too. If you get caught using, you're automatically suspended for a full year. Kids know they might have a career in pro sports at stake, so they have to weigh the potential of losing that career when they consider steroids. Losing a year of eligibility has probably done as much as anything to curtail the use of steroids as anything."
In place of steroids, athletes have turned to nutritional supplements, another area where the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations had a head start.
"They were way ahead of us on that," said Glass. "Everyone knows about the steroids they used over there, but they were big into nutritional supplements that are healthy when used right long before we had any research at all. I'll give you an example. The NCAA says that there is no documented research on Creatine, yet the Soviets had books on how it can be used safely back as early as 1961. There is a lot of evidence that when used properly, Creatine is excellent."
Glass believes that the NCAA needs to sponsor more research into healthy use of nutritional supplements as well as developing policies for their use which are realistic and beneficial. Instead of good research and helpful policies, however, the NCAA policies have created problems. NCAA rules until a couple of years ago allowed the strength and conditioning coaches to oversee the dispensation and use of supplements such as Creatine, but the rules have changed. Now, players who want to use supplements have to purchase their own. They can ask their strength and conditioning coaches for advice about a particular supplement, but that is the extent of oversight. Glass is well aware that this NCAA rule leaves open the possibility for lasting harm or even death, as in the case of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, who died in spring training from complications of using an over the counter supplement that was laced with Ephedra, a banned substance.
"There are supplements out there that are harmful, but we can't monitor what the kids take anymore and I think that's wrong," Glass said. "When we were giving them the supplements, we knew what was in them, knew how they could be used safely and effectively, and we could monitor when and how they took them. Now, kids go down to GNC and they buy things that who knows what's in them? All we can do is ask the kids to check with us first before they buy. This is a rule that needs to be changed for the safety of the kids."
TOMORROW: It's not like a workout at your neighborhood health and fitness center where you work on a few machines and maybe lift a few dead weights with a "trainer" screaming at you to do one more rep. Rob Glass designs a strength and conditioning program for each athlete that is specific to the individual needs.