When famed Czech gymnast, Vera Caslavska, passed away last month, there was a section in a Guardian article about Caslavska that shocked me. In 1968, the Soviet Union’s women’s gymnastics team defeated the Czech team to take gold at the Mexico City Olympics. The Soviet team was said to have apparently employed a most horrifying doping technique.
To counter Caslavska and her team-mates, the Soviets took extreme measures. “In any other country it would have been called rape,” one of the Soviet coaches said a quarter of a century later, after one of the gymnasts had told a German television interviewer what happened.
Doctors had discovered that pregnant women could gain an advantage in muscle power, suppleness and lung capacity, because they produced more red blood cells. So all the gymnasts, two of whom were 15 at the time, were forced to become pregnant before the Olympics: if they did not have a husband or boyfriend, they were made to have sex with a male coach. Anyone who refused was thrown off the team.
After 10 weeks of pregnancy every gymnast had an abortion. They won the team gold medal by a fraction of a point, with Czechoslovakia second.
This can’t be true, I thought. But it was reported in a major newspaper, I rationalized. But coaches could never get so many people to do this, I countered. But it’s been reported not only in the press, but also in documentaries, I learned.
The story first emerged in a major BBC documentary series in 1991 called “More Than a Game”. Then in 1994, a German RTL documentary featured, Olga Kovalenko, a member of that 1968 Soviet gymnastics team, who revealed the sordid details of pregnancy doping.
But as Elizabeth Booth explains in this detailed blog post in November, 2015, it appears this sensational story of rape, pregnancy, abortion and hormones is bogus. The biggest hole in the story was the German documentary’s claim that Soviet Olga Kovalenko was revealing all. Apparently, the woman in the documentary was not Olga Kovalenko. The real gymnast, the one who competed in Mexico City on the Soviet gold-medal winning team, took a Russian sports magazine to court in proving that she was not a victim of rape doping.
Once, German broadcaster RTL screened an interview … with my double! A certain woman who said that she was Olympic champion in gymnastics, Olga Kovalenko. (I actually took the surname of my second husband, but then divorced and again became Karaseva.). She gave a sensational interview, saying that the USSR coach forced the girls to get pregnant and then at the ninth or tenth week to have an abortion! Doctors know that at these times there is a sharp increase in the levels of male hormones in the woman’s body, which in girls increases physical strength and brings new resources of life, a feeling of elation. It is meant to be a kind of doping. “That’s how we won,” – these are the words of the imaginary “Kovalenko”.
Of course, this interview was published by many news agencies, newspapers and magazines. The Moscow correspondent of the Spanish newspaper “ABC” Juan Jimenez de Partha somehow tracked down my phone and asked about the meeting. Imagine his disappointment when I told him it’s easy to prove that it is a pure fake. At the time, when my “understudy” was broadcasting live on abortion, I was on a sea cruise. There is evidence in my passport!
Then “Paris Match” reporter Michel Peyrard, who had seen the “tremendous” interview on RTL, flew in to see me. He was pretty surprised that I could speak perfect French, but also frustrated because he found no resemblance to the “Olga from Germany”.
In the end, as Booth explained, the suspicion of doping in the former Soviet Union was high at the time the story came out, as it is today with Russia, and thus our resistance to believing a story like this, even one as fantastical as this, has been low.
At the time the papers – quality and tabloid press alike – had little good to say about the sport. A high profile rumour was also circulating that the female gymnasts were fed drugs to delay puberty, including one case where an ‘expert’ (we never found out exactly who) had observed photographs of a gymnast where her physical development had actually receded, rather than progressed. The words ‘I would believe anything’ summed up the attitude of many in the press at that time.