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Original Issue


Behind their newly breached wall, East Germany's wondrous athletes relish their greatest prize, freedom

On Nov. 10, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall effectively fell, Kristin Otto wrote these words in the diary she has kept for more than nine years: "A day which will become history because it is the coronation of all that has gone before. As of today, the borders are open. All hell has broken loose at the visa offices and the banks. Everybody wants to seize this moment because all have been waiting for it for so very long, the moment when they are at last free to travel."

To make the great date stand out from her less cosmic entries, Otto highlighted it with brightly colored markers—just as she had her entry of Sept. 25, 1988, when she won her historic sixth gold medal in swimming at the Seoul Olympics. Then she hurried to her parents' home not far from her own in Leipzig, to discuss what might be called East Germany's version of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Like almost everything else that has been happening in Eastern Europe during this unforgettable season of falling walls and rising hopes, events in the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.) have taken the world—including, most especially, the 16.7 million East Germans who have spent their lives sealed inside their bleak homeland—by complete surprise.

The biggest question posed by the changes, and one that is unlikely to be answered in the near future, is that of the unification of the two Germanies. West Germans last week sounded hopeful, perhaps even optimistic, about the possibility. But in the East, the idea was not popular. Otto, 23 and freshly retired from her sport, the owner of a Peugeot and comfortably ensconced in a new, stylishly furnished three-room apartment in the center of Leipzig, was nevertheless typical of her less-privileged countrymen. She said, "This is not a subject of discussion at all because we are two sovereign states. That cannot change. I believe we cannot do without help from other countries, and we must accept that help. But our situation now calls for us to put everything in proper order."

Of course, the old order in East Germany was a surreal one, dependent for its survival on the cold war, that global stalemate in which warring powers never really went to war. The battles were fought on stranger fields. The G.D.R. has for years had the highest standard of living among the Soviet satellites, but most of the world was more impressed with the fact that it also possessed the most efficient system ever known for producing athletes who could win medals in the Olympic Games. Sports medals became as much a symbol of what the G.D.R. stood for as anything.

Now that the cold war appears to be ending, another logical question has arisen: Can the East German sports machine keep humming in the face of liberalization? Michael Hübner, the former world sprint cycling champion who lives in Karl-Marx-Stadt, said last week, "Money is lying in the streets. All you have to do is pick it up." Hübner's remark referred to the riches western athletes can derive from their performances, and raised the question of how the East Germans will function in their new world. Can they succeed as before, without the tensions of the cold war to keep their athletes on edge? Can they continue to motivate men and women who no longer will be turned on merely by the prospect of a rare trip out of their nation-prison? Will the money in foreign streets cause East German athletes to emigrate? The answers lie buried in uncertainty, but for the moment, at least. East German athletes seem euphoric about the possibilities.

For the G.D.R.'s platoons of Olympic superstars, occasional travel beyond the Wall had always been an assumed privilege; yet they, too, rejoiced at the reality that others could now join them in the wicked capitalist West. Katarina Witt, 23, the retired ice queen of figure skating, was busy shooting a film in Spain called Carmen on Ice, in which she plays guess who. She said, "Every normal worker in the G.D.R. should have the possibility at least once in his lifetime to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris. We have accomplished much in 40 years in the G.D.R., but there have been many things we cannot agree with, and the limits on travel were one of them.... My parents never saw me compete in a world or Olympic championship outside the G.D.R. until my last world championship in Budapest, after the Calgary Olympics in 1988."

Otto said in Leipzig last week, "I am very moved by this, but certainly not as much as people who have never been in the West. My sister Irina is 29 years old, and she made her first visit to West Berlin with her husband and small daughter the day after restrictions were lifted. Their lives will never be the same."

Even well-traveled East German athletes were dazzled by the thought of previously impossible opportunities that a permanently open East Germany will offer them. Ulf Timmermann, the world-record holder and 1988 Olympic gold medalist in the shot put, said in East Berlin, "These events affect us as much as anyone else, because we will have new freedom too. I would like to enter more international events than I have been allowed to in the past, and I will now have a chance to add my opinion to any discussions about that subject. It is an amazing fact, but we are now allowed to travel without official permission or supervision. The day after the border was opened, I actually drove my wife to the West Berlin airport and we flew to Frankfurt so I could appear on television.

"It was her first time in a Western country. Until now, even official team trips have been cut as short as possible. Now, I can go to Zurich for a meet, bring my wife and stay on for a little Swiss vacation afterward. Everything is now possible."

Cornelia Oschkenat, the best 100-meter woman hurdler in the G.D.R, was favored to win the gold medal in Seoul until she pulled a hamstring and finished eighth in the final. She foresees a grand opening that includes travel to the U.S.: "We could maybe train now in the state of California with Carl Lewis. If the invitations are coming, why not?"

Why not, indeed? The bars have been lowered enough so that sports heroes of the G.D.R. might soon be allowed to receive real money directly from real free-enterprise entrepreneurs of the West. Timmermann said, "Sponsors have paid appearance money and prize money for G.D.R. athletes in the past, but all of it went straight to the sports federation. The individuals got none of it. Now, I think there will be some money for Ulf and others. And there will be no selling of our athletes below the price paid for other countries' athletes.... Of course, I have no objection to giving most of such money back to the system because I know very well that I am able to perform at this level only because I have been supported for all these years."

The going appearance fee at the 17 track and field meets on the Mobil Grand Prix tour is at least $5,000 for an Olympic gold medalist. Though no ratios for splitting the money have yet been set by G.D.R. sports authorities, East German journalists who follow track and field closely estimated that in the future athletes will receive anywhere from a very low 10% to a hardly generous 35% of the take.

Uwe Ampler, a world champion individual road racing cyclist and a gold medal winner in Seoul, has far more to gain—or to lose—than athletes like Timmermann because prize money for a race like the Tour de France can come to as much as $220,000. And subsequent contracts can bring in millions more. Ampler is known as a particularly talented mountain racer, so the Tour de France is his kind of race. Not surprisingly, he was ecstatic about the new look of sport in the G.D.R.: "I have won everything I can win as an amateur, and I have been very tempted by professional sport. Now this Utopian world may become a reality for me, and I welcome these changes very much."

Ampler said that, as a physical education student and as a world-class cyclist, he had received a subsidy of 1,000 East German marks a month, which even under the most favorable exchange rate never amounted to more than $54. Indeed, the vaunted East German sports machine has never been very generous to Ampler. He won the Peace Tour, a road race through Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany, three consecutive years. Each time, he won a new car. Each time, he was told to turn it over to the sports bureaucracy. Each time, some functionary wound up driving it. Ampler did not get a car of his own until 1987. He paid for it himself, and the only special treatment he got in the deal was that he didn't have to wait 10 years for it, as an everyday working stiff would have had to do.

The grand winds of change have also inspired young East German champions-to-be. The greatest strength of the East German sports apparatus is its ability to identify and recruit potentially outstanding athletes when they are children—and this most likely will not change. Beginning as early as age eight or nine, children are given the chance to attend special sports schools, where they get a sound formal education and spend hours every day in rigorous physical-training sessions.

Last week, Judith Kaminski, 16, a product of that system and the most promising junior long jumper in the G.D.R., said of her future, "Our whole class went to West Berlin as soon as the border opened, and now we know we aren't closed off any longer. We will go out often to compete. We can expect perhaps better rewards for our performances—more money, that is." She had a cast on her foot from a soccer mishap, and on it her father had drawn a cartoon showing the landmark TV Tower in East Berlin and the Broadcasting Tower in West Berlin. A big, loving, red heart hung over the two towers and alongside in large letters were John Kennedy's words: ICH BIN EIN BERLINER!

The opening of the barriers that the cartoon celebrated also seemed to transform the face—and perhaps the soul—of East Germany. Instead of snarling guards at Checkpoint Charlie and grim receptionist-watchdogs blocking the way into the workplaces of sports officials, however minor, smiles and cooperation bloomed everywhere last week. East German sentries at the Wall were no longer armed, and the "white mice"—policemen in white coats who used to rule every street corner—were rarely seen. The autobahns leading to West Berlin were packed with long lines of cheerfully sputtering little East German Trabants and Wartburgs. In the past these roads were used almost exclusively by fast foreign traffic crossing East Germany. The newspapers of East Berlin used to sit in unbought stacks, but now they sold out in the morning because they had begun to print stories that were critical of the government and might actually be true.

One of the nicest revelations of this new openness was the discovery that the glum, monosyllabic, inaccessible churls who used to compete in sports for the G.D.R. are in fact a bunch of bright, charming, sensitive conversationalists. They spoke openly—and fearlessly. Wolfgang Hoppe, 32, East Germany's most celebrated bobsledder, with five world championships and two Olympic gold medals to his credit, had always presented the foreign press with impenetrable reticence. Last week he was not only voluble but also volatile. "There are so many things that are wrong in our country," he said. "I would like, for example, to have the right to speak up about the use of money earned by athletes of the G.D.R. People think I have special privileges because I have a Trabant and a Lada and I can compete in the West. If the public knew what worthwhile projects are financed by the money we athletes bring home from our performances, people wouldn't be so critical of sportsmen."

People critical of sportsmen? In the G.D.R.? This, too, was now out in the open. The public was indeed not entirely enthralled with its heroes—not even after East German athletes produced 572 Olympic medals between 1956 and '88, not even after they actually won more medals (127) in the Winter and Summer Games of '88 than the U.S. (100), which has a population 15 times larger.

There is grass-roots anger directed by the common man toward the relatively privileged elite athletes of East Germany. As virtual celebrities in the G.D.R., the athletes last week found themselves surrounded by rumor and innuendo. At a press conference before dozens of journalists, in fact, a vice-president of the national sports federation, Dr. Thomas K‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áhler, announced that he had learned that several athletes had been either threatened or attacked by citizens who resented their high style of living. He said that Otto, among others, had been menaced, that Ampler had been pushed off his bike, and that someone had threatened to kill the child of Martina Hellmann, women's discus champion at the '88 Olympics. K‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áhler declared that a swimmer's car had been damaged and that the tires on a speed skater's car had been slashed. This was duly reported by newspapers and a wire service—and it all proved to be untrue, except for the damage to the car. In that case, there was no evidence that the wrongdoing was the work of an athlete-hater. Kohler had simply heard the rumors from someone and. in the general uproar, repeated them as truth.

The president of the sports federation, Klaus Eichler, an energetic former pole vaulter, spoke with candor of Köhler's gaffe: "Unfortunately, an official of our organization got too excited over something. Then, of course, the journalists got too excited and printed it. In the old days, they would have called me first to be sure it was all right to publish it. These days, they just go ahead on their own."

Eichler went on to indulge in more previously unthinkable public criticism of the system: "It is our own fault if some people think that high-performance sports are too expensive. We have been too secret, we have hidden too much. We must be more open. If people knew that our athletes labor for 70 hours a week in training—that is, they work much harder than the average worker in our society—they would be more sympathetic. But in the past, we were afraid to tell anyone that our athletes trained 70 hours a week, because we were afraid we would be revealing the secret of our great success." He burst into laughter at this very uncharacteristic East German joke about a formerly very characteristic East German paranoia.

In the interest of keeping a critical public off its back, the sports federation published budget figures last week indicating that less has been spent on the country's elite sports program than was generally thought. In fact, the East German sports apparatus looks just about as low-rent as it actually is. The country has channeled its limited funds mainly into desperately needed housing over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, sports facilities, swimming pools in particular, have been left to deteriorate.

Shabby though conditions often are, the athletes still seem extraordinarily loyal to the system. Among the few known to have recently fled to the West are a swimmer who finished eighth in Seoul, a junior soccer player and a very good woman handball player. The biggest name to declare her intention to migrate west was the retired swimmer Kornelia Ender. Ender, now 31 and a physiotherapist, won four gold and four silver medals in the 1972 and '76 Olympics. She and her second husband, Steffen Grummt, a world champion in the four-man bobsled, applied for permanent exit visas, saying they have "been denied all possibilities for successful development." A handful of coaches also reportedly have gone west.

Among East German sports stars, there was excited talk about hosting international meets and about friendly sporting exchanges with West Germany—including, perhaps, a mutual marathon that would stream through Berlin's famous Brandenburg Gate.

A united German Summer Olympics team in 1988 would have won 142 medals—more even than the U.S.S.R. But in East Germany, there was no question of where the hearts of most athletes resided. As Oschkenat said, "Unified Germany? I can't imagine we will ever compete for a unified country. When I compete for my country, I compete for my Germany."

Timmermann summed up both the hope and the doubt about what lies ahead. "I won't leave my home," he said. "I could take more money in the West, perhaps drive a Mercedes instead of a Wartburg, but there is so much here—education, jobs for athletes, assurance that our social cares are taken care of. I hope we never abandon socialism, because, if it is done the right way, it has many advantages. I emphasize, if it is done the right way."





In Leipzig, Otto noted the momentous events in her diary.



Oschkenat, who pulled up lame in Seoul, now sees herself training with stars like Lewis.



Ampler hopes that prize money will help make him an even bigger wheel.



Timmermann was quick to visit the Wall's west side.



Will the fall of the Wall, here at the Potsdamer Platz, give rise to unified German teams?



Otto gave the border opening equal billing with the six gold medals she won in Seoul.



The injured Kaminski (here with high juniper Dana Buchholz) took JFK's words to heart.