Giant on the move
Britta talks candidly
“Go ahead – ask me anything you want,” said German swimmer Britta Steffen at the start of a recent interview in Berlin. I had spent the last two hours watching her swim further (and three times faster) than I had swum in the last two months and was planning to ask her, among other things, a few questions about the doping innuendos that hit her in mid 2006 right after she broke the world record in the 100 metres freestyle. But I didn’t expect Steffen, who is regularly tested and never suspected of any wrongdoing, to so openly tackle the issue.
“Really, go ahead and ask,” she said again. So I jumped right in without even any warmup and started asking about those who have doubts on her world record time at the European championships in Budapest (53.30) in 2006 that was nearly a full second faster than her previous best (and lowered Australia’s Libby Lenton’s record of 53.42). What she would say those find such steep improvements hard to believe. “I’d be sceptical too,” she said. “I can totally understand that. If it weren’t me, I’d also have doubts. But the coaches took the pressure off my shoulder by pointing out that a Libby Lenton and other world record holders had also made improvements of a full-second before getting their world records.”
Steffen was bullied a bit by the media in Australia ahead of the 2007 world championships even though Australia’s head coach Alan Thompson had defended her and the German women’s team . But she realises that the doping regime of Communist East Germany cast long shadows. “The problem for me that I had taken off a half year two years earlier and on top of that I’m a ‘German’ and from the ‘east’ and so everyone assumed the worst,” said Steffen, who nevertheless voluntarily provides samples of her blood and urine to be frozen for future testing when new methods might be available.
She also knows timing played a role. In the summer of 2006 doping scandals were in the headlines after the Tour de France was ravaged. The insinuations — there were never any allegations — over her world record pained her. ”Sure it hurt my feelings,” Steffen said. “It seemed so unfair. There’s nothing you can do but live with the doubters. The people who know me and trust me know I’m clean.”
It seems a bit like a modern-day witchhunt — you’re assumed to be guilty of doping unless you can prove otherwise? If you swim fast, you’re guilty? If you’re not fast, you’re left alone. That’s why Steffen said she is glad to see the doping control officials people on a regular basis. She also struggles to find an answer to those who don’t want to believe her. “The only answer I have for the others is to confront them directly and say ‘Put yourself in my situation. What would you do? What would you say? How would you act?’ And the answer is always ‘Um, gee, I don’t really know. That’s a tough question.’”
Pix from top: Britta celebrates her victory in the women’s 100m freestyle final during the European Aquatic Championships in Budapest in 2006 (photo by Laszlo Balogh). Britta in action at the World Aquatics Championship in Melbourne in 2007 (Wolfgang Rattay )