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Fact or fiction? The press, gymnastics and pregnancy doping

It was a Sunday morning.  I was drinking my coffee and contemplating the day ahead - a workout at the gym, shopping for groceries, an evening reading a book, or catching up on last night's episodes of crime thriller The Bridge.  How nice it was not to have to think about work for a day.

Then I saw it - a story about the history of doping in The Observer.  Interesting reading.

Of course, cheating is as old as the hills.  It is, unfortunately, human nature for some people to try to gain easy advantage in any kind of competition.  That is why we have laws, rules, ethical guidelines.  People who cheat should face justice and shouldn't complain when they are found out.

But the story about pregnancy doping bothered me.  Hadn't that been found to be fictional?  The author began with Olga Kovalenko's allegations made in 1994 - but the rumours had started way back in 1991 with the documentary series More Than A Game.  The practice of pregnancy doping was discussed, and in response to a question about whether the Soviet Union gymnasts might have been involved, coach (and BBC TV commentator) Mitch Fenner responded, 'I would believe anything'.

Yes, it made me catch my breath, too.  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.  

Ironically the sensationalistic allegations made the headlines more than the facts did.  Drugs? Unproven.  More likely, the commonly accepted fact that early specialisation, workload, dietary discipline and hereditary factors were all implicated in the generally small size and boyish physique of the top gymnasts.  There were age falsifications to enable very young gymnasts to compete before they were eligible, but the only historic doping allegations to have been found to be of substance relate to the use of steroids during injury recovery in the late 1980s, as part of a German court case against a sports doctorThe allegations of pregnancy doping seemed completely incongruous in this context.

Yet, as The Observer states, pregnancy doping amongst the all six of the 1968 Soviet Olympic gymnasts was confirmed in 1994 in a German language RTL documentary by someone who claimed to be Olga Kovalenko, a member of the team.  In the absence of an archive of medical records, as existed in Germany, first hand verbal testimony is the only evidence available.  Sports Illustrated and many other respected publications covered the story, which now seemed well founded. The rumour became accepted fact in the West. 

By 2004, however, the story was found to be bogus.  The facts were covered by Russian newspaper Kommersant, and made available in the West via a press release (see full wording at the bottom of this blog post).  The Olga Kovalenko in RTL's documentary was not the Olga Kovalenko who competed (under the name of Olga Karasyova) at the 1968 Olympics.  Kovalenko went to court in Moscow in 2004 to prove the fact - in a case against Russian sports monthly Speed Info - and was awarded a small sum in damages.  She said that she knew nothing about pregnancy doping.  What had been accepted as fact became fiction once again - but the respected publications who had originally covered the story didn't know or care about Kovalenko's legal action.  In the English language the real story - or the lack of a story - remained hidden from view.  The myth remained freely in circulation, and available for repetition by any hapless journalist who didn't bother to look any deeper.  This is how myths and conspiracy theories spread.

There are loose ends.  Why, for example, didn't Kovalenko take RTL to court about their original documentary?  Why did the coach comment?  A difficult question to answer without sight of the original documentary and the context in which words were said by one person or another.  It is impossible to know anything without access to the original players, who have all now moved on and are living their private lives.  Why on earth should anyone want to waste their energy on this non-story?

So I hope that by now it is perfectly clear - no public grounds exist for saying that pregnancy doping took place in the case of the 1968 Soviet Olympic gymnastics team.  The Observer journalist who included the story in his article last week has said to me that he finds the story 'confusing' and, indeed, it is.  Far too confusing to include as fact in an important article in one of the country's leading broadsheet papers.  Apparently the writer has asked a 'prominent Moscow journalist' to help with his investigations.  Isn't it rather late to investigate a story - AFTER it has been published?

There is no story.  I'm not the only one saying this - Le Monde sports journalist and athletics coach Pierre-Jean Vazel, who investigated this in 2013, has tweeted since publication of the Observer article that 'the pregnant Russian gymnast story was a blatant lie and manipulation'. 

I have written to the Observer's Readers' Editor asking for a correction, but so far the article hasn't changed, so it remains on the record and will no doubt contribute to the perpetuation of this false and unfounded story.  I am posting below some screenshots of the key parts of the feature and of the journalist's responses to my tweets about it, so that they remain on the record, too.  I am hoping that eventually some changes will be made, but to be honest I'm not that optimistic.  It seems to me that in this case, the Soviets are considered guilty until proven innocent.

If you know anything more, please post a comment.

Key extract from the Observer article of the 15th November - you can see more in the caption to the picture, above

Comments on the Observer article, available online

Text of a 2004 press release summarising the contents of the Kommersant newspaper report

GYMNASTICS: Karasyova wins libel case
MOSCOW -- Former Soviet Olympic star Olga Karasyova has won damages over
bizarre allegations that Soviet athletes had been forced to get pregnant and

then have abortions to boost their performance.

A Moscow court ruled that the Russian monthly SPEED Info had libelled Karasyova
by quoting her as saying that the ruling body of Soviet sport forced women
stars to have sex with their trainers to become pregnant, the Kommersant daily
reported Thursday.

According to the allegations, after 9-10 weeks of pregnancy the women athletes
were forced to have abortions, but the high level of natural hormones present
in the women's bodies helped improve their performance.

An outraged Karasyova denied she ever made any such allegation against
Goskomsport, which ran sport during the communist era.

The court awarded Karasyova, who won gold at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics,
35,000 rubles (1,750 dollars) in damages. She is now considering legal action
against the German television station RTL, which broadcast similar charges.

In November 1994, the German station aired a sensational live interview with a
woman posing as the Olympic champion, who blew the whistle on illegal methods
used by Goskomsport.

The real Karasyova decided against taking legal action against the German
channel, despite seeing the broadcast during a Mediterranian cruise holiday.
But when SPEED Info published the allegations in April she decided to take

Kommersant said Karasyova had asked her lawyers to launch legal proceedings
against RTL as soon as possible. The former gymnast told the paper that she
never heard of any involvement in the sex lives of athletes by Goskomsport.

Since publishing this article, two further archival sources have come to my attention, which have been translated and published on this blog.  The chronology has become clearer; the dates in my article above are incorrect in places.  


  1. Its interesting that the writer of the article chose to use gymnasts as an example of drug cheats considering that gymnastics is a relatively clean sport ( I think ). On a completely unrelated topic did you recently post a comment on one of the guardian articles under the name Queen Elizabeth ? It seemed like too much of a coincidence for it not to be you .

    1. I did post - but not as Queen Eliz!

    2. The whole story is so obviously false that I am surprised that it is still doing the rounds. As far as I know there has been some research indicating that far from hindering performance female distance athletes can actually benefit from having had a child because the changes to the body in pregnancy can improve stamina. Of course distance athletes (of both genders) can have long careers and usually peak in their mid to late twenties rather than in their teens or early twenties. A female distance athlete can take a break of many months from training and resume her career without an obvious detriment from not having trained. This is not the case with gymnasts. There is a huge difference between the potential physiological benefits over many years of having had a child and any supposed benefits that could result from the first trimester of pregnancy followed by a termination of that pregnancy followed by participation in a major international sports championship. Presumably if the benefit is supposed to be an increase in red blood cells then the termination would have to take place shortly before the competition or that benefit would be lost. It is completely unrealistic that sports coaches would have believed that having surgery before a major international competition was good preparation. The circumstances in which this was supposed to have happened to 15 year olds are such that it is difficult to see that the athletes would be anything other than traumatised. Did the reporter even think to enquire of medical experts whether any possible benefit could follow from what was described? We know that doping can confer advantages in many sports - if this practise cannot actually confer a benefit (which I don't believe it can) why would anyone have engaged in it?

      Also I am not surprised that the athlete did not sue in Germany or the UK. Litigation of that type is difficult and expensive and particularly so when it has to be conducted in another country and through a foreign language. Presumably the athlete was most concerned at the repeating of these allegations in Russia where her friends, family and colleagues would read them. I have no doubt the broadcasts/publishing in Germany and the UK distressed her also but less immediately because of the fact that this was all done abroad and mostly before the internet so the allegations would not be readily picked up and repeated in Russia.


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