You Can’t Run Away From Your Problems – Waldemar Cierpinski: East Germany’s Mediocre Marathon Man

Goalie Jurgen Croy and his teammates on the 1976 East German Olympic Football Team were looking for motivation before they took the field against Poland in the Gold Medal match in Montreal. They needed just the right inspiration to get fired up before they took the field to play in torrential rain. They found it in an unlikely source, fellow countryman Waldemar Cierpinski, who they had just watched improbably run to victory in the marathon. Croy said the team “just sat there staring at each other, thinking that if this living example of mediocrity can lift himself up and win the marathon, and we don’t beat Poland, we are never going to hear the end of it.” Croy and his teammates had found the proper motivation. The East Germans scored two goals in the first 15 minutes of the game and went on to win the gold medal by defeating Poland 3-1. They had been inspired by “a living example of mediocrity”. Little did they know that this mediocrity was not through winning Olympic marathons.

Waldemar Cierpinski - The dubious two-time Olympic marathon champion

Waldemar Cierpinski – The questionable two-time Olympic marathon champion (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-W0801-0126)

The Unexpected Champion – Waldemar Who?
“Who in the world is Waldemar Cierpinski?” That thought must have run through the mind of American marathoner Frank Shorter. Shorter was the defending Olympic marathon champion and looked well on his way to becoming only the second man to ever win two Olympic marathons in a row. The only problem was that Shorter, who had taken the lead long the streets of Montreal, was suddenly confronted by the presence of Cierpinski at the twenty-five kilometer mark. Shorter was shocked that the East German had caught up with him. He became even more rattled as Cierpinski moved in closer to him, a strategy the East German was using to unnerve the American. It seemed to work as Shorter was forced to shove his surprise opponent out of his running space. Cierpinski was eventually able to take the lead and made it to the finish line a minute ahead of Shorter. The finish though turned out to be premature, at least in the mind of Cierpinski who ran another lap after he had officially finished. It turned out that he was confused.

His confusion turned to celebration as Shorter was at the finish line waiting to congratulate him. The American was a gracious runner-up, even though Cierpinski had thwarted his bid for a second consecutive Olympic marathon gold medal. Four years later, at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Cierpinski was the one attempting to win a second consecutive gold medal in the marathon. Once again he would have to come from behind. This time Cierpinski made his move around the thirty-sixth kilometer mark as he blew by the leaders. He kept up a blistering pace right up to the finish, sprinting the last 200 meters in just 33 seconds. With the victory Cierpinski joined the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila as the only men to win consecutive Olympic marathons.

Running to victory - Waldemar Cierpinski making the final lap at Montreal at the 1976 Olympics

Running to victory – Waldemar Cierpinski making the final lap at Montreal at the 1976 Olympics (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R0731-0135)

The Recordbreaker – A Shadow Comes To Light
It is said that you cannot run away from your problems, that wherever you go they are likely to follow. In the case of Cierpinski, a two time Olympic champion marathoner, that old saying turned out to be true. Cierpinski’s legacy seemed secure, but then the Berlin Wall came crashing down. That event meant records of the East German Stasi (secret police) came to light. These records were unlike the record books Cierpinski’s name had previously been part of. Rather than recording his athletic achievements, the records turned out to cast a shadow over them. After his two Olympic victories there were a few eyebrows raised about how a formerly mediocre steeplechase runner suddenly became a world beater, but there was no hard evidence against Cierpinski. In addition, the 1976 Montreal Olympics were the first ones to have drug testing, but these tests were for anabolic steroids, not blood doping. This fact would turn out to be more than a mere footnote.

In 1998 Dr. Werner Fricke, a German scientist, gained access to Stasi archives in the eastern German city of Leipzig. From these documents he unearthed State Plan 14:25. This plan for state sponsored drug use by athletes turned out to be on an almost unfathomable scope and scale. It named over 10,000 East German athletes who had been given banned substances.  On page 105 of State Plan 14:25 was the name of Waldemar Cierpinski who had been given drugs in order to boost his performance. Cierpinski’s sudden ascent from mediocrity to Olympic greatness in 1976 took on a whole new meaning.  Now he looked like, at worst just another drug cheat and at best the victim of a state sponsored plan to create Olympic medal winners for propaganda purposes.

Cierpinski may have been incriminated, but in many respects he had been quite fortunate. After his competitive career ended Cierpinsi did not seem to suffer any side effects from the drugs that were given to him. Other East German athletes ended up with diseases, had children with birth defects or were forced to abort pregnancies due to the deleterious effects of steroids and blood doping. Cierpinski became a member of the German Olympic Committee. Though there has been talk of stripping him and other East German athletes of their Olympic medals nothing has been done so far. For his part, Cierpinski has remained almost totally silent on the topic. In a rare interview he said, “As long distance athletes, we had to prove that we had not taken anything before we left the country.” That statement did not lend itself to credibility since Cierpinski would have been proving that he was drug free to the same state that had administered drugs to him in the first place. In this case, the cheaters were doing the checking.

For the record - Waldemar Cierpinski in 2014

For the record – Waldemar Cierpinski in 2014 (Credit: Udo Rupkalwis)

No One Other Than Himself – The Height Of Mediocrity
It is unlikely that Waldemar Cierpinski’s Olympic medals will be taken away from him. If it did not happen in the years after he was first exposed than it is highly unlikely that anything will be done in the future. Just how much these drugs helped Cierpinski will always be open to question. The truth is that the answer can never really be known. Without the drugs though, it can be stated with some certainty that Cierpinski would have remained “a living example of mediocrity.” and an inspiration for no one other than himself.



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