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At the world swimming championships in Perth last January, Jörg Hoffmann won what some consider to be the greatest race of all time, the 1,500-meter final, in which he touched out Kieren Perkins of Australia in world-record time. Yet because swimming lags well behind track and soccer in its appeal to sponsors in the reunified Germany, the man on the street in Munich is more likely to have heard of Mark Spitz than of Hoffmann, who says, "The press isn't exactly invading my private life."

Hoffmann, 21, gets by on $1,800 a month, drawn about equally from the army, in which he's a sergeant, and Sporthilfe, the stipends given by the unified German government to elite athletes. His club, the army-affiliated Olympischer Sport-Club in Potsdam, won seven medals in Perth but can no longer afford even to supply swimsuits to its athletes. The swimmers pay their own way to domestic meets. While in Hamburg for the German championships last June, they crashed at an army barracks to save money. "We live," says Hoffmann, "from hand to mouth."

The Potsdam club gave Hoffmann's coach, Harald Herberg, notice in June that he'll be out of a job in a year. Herberg, 44, could see the end coming but still turned down offers from clubs in the West because he felt an obligation to the younger swimmers in his charge and because he wants to be a part of Hoffmann's attempt to win two Olympic medals. In July, Hoffmann and Herberg attended a high-altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz., a trip that cost more than $4,100. Hoffman paid $1,700, Herberg paid $1,800—more than half of what he had in his savings account at the time—and the German Swimming Federation then reimbursed Hoffmann $600.

The tenuousness of his current existence isn't lost on Hoffmann. "Under the new system, there's the incentive to exhaust my capabilities and the risk that I might fail," he says. "In the G.D.R. I would have lived in the golden middle forever. If there had not been the change, I would have been completely secure. I would have had a job whether I qualified for it or not—I would have grown old in it. Now, it's like a game—I may rise very high or fall very low. As in any game where everything's at stake, there's more of a thrill."

Hoffmann is well suited to succeed at the gaming table. Herberg, on the other hand, is playing against long odds.