Athletics in the GDR
Introduction: This is the first in a series on athletics in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) written by Philip Hersh for the Chicago Tribune.
They are reposted here with permission.
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Some Of The Elements Of The Disgraced East German Sports Machine Remain Part Of The Training...
By Philip Hersh, Tribune Olympic Sports Writer, September 12, 2000
Germany will mark a decade of reunification two days after the Closing Ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games in which its athletes should be among the top three nations in the medal count. Much of that success still is due to the remnants of a notorious East German sports system that has outlived the demise of the country that created it. A shameful but successful past has blended into a surprising present and points a way to the future in German sport.
Berlin--Franziska Van Almsick, a swimmer born and raised behind the Wall in East Berlin, was 14 when she became a youthful symbol of her reunified country by winning two silver and two bronze medals for Germany at the 1992 Olympics.
By the 1996 Olympics, where she won two more silver medals and one more bronze, Van Almsick had earned an estimated $7 million from a variety of sponsorship deals with companies based in the former West Germany. She was the new generation, introduced to sport in the communist East but never competing against the capitalist West before the countries' 41-year political separation ended a decade ago.
This week Van Almsick, 22, is headed for her third Olympics, having qualified to swim three individual events and at least two of the three relays at the 2000 Sydney Games that begin Friday. She has been training where she always did, on the old East side of town at the massive athletic complex of Sports Club Berlin, down the street from the Werner Seelenbinder School she attended from age 10 to 19.
After nearly three years without visiting her old school, Van Almsick went back not long ago. As she walked through the main door, the first thing she saw was a wall display picturing her and other top athletes produced at Werner Seelenbinder, once the most celebrated East German sports school. Its students frequently would win more Olympic medals than Great Britain.
"This surprised me," Van Almsick said. "After the Berlin Wall came down, everything East German was bad. We had to fight against the German government to say we needed this kind of school for good sport in the next years. Now these young athletes are proud to see the good names that went to the same school."
A decade after the Oct. 3, 1990 reunification, as Germany again sends a single team to the Olympics, the big picture of sports in the former East Germany is equally surprising.
The system behind East German sports success has been widely reviled for the dehumanizing abuses revealed since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. But the institutions central to the old system--the sports schools, the national training center near Berlin, the sports research center in Leipzig--are not only functioning, they are, in the schools' case, flourishing.
"At the beginning the feeling was to bulldoze everything," said Gerd Neumes, a West German who has been the Werner Seelenbinder principal since 1991. "Now the perspective has changed."
This owes to more than what is called ostalgie, the idea that combines the German word for east (ost) with a nostalgic longing for totems and touchstones of the past.
"Now we think the system is not as wrong as we thought before," said Jochen Schubert, proud that his 12-year-old daughter, Kristin, will attend the Werner Seelenbinder School next year. "When we want to get good sports results, we must have learning combined with sports."
The German Interior Ministry, which has sports within its purview, funds both the Institute for Applied Training Science in Leipzig and the national training center in Kienbaum. In both cases, eradicating the past was less important than providing for the future.
"Sports was an integral factor of the reunification," Interior Ministry spokeswoman Eva Schmierer said.
The 2000 German Olympic team will include many athletes from the former East. Some--long jumper Heike Drechsler, discus thrower Jurgen Schult, marathoner Katrin Dorre and kayaker Birgit Fischer--are old enough to have won Olympic medals under the East German flag. Other team members were given their early training in the East, including former Werner Seelenbinder students Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour de France champion; Jens Fieldler, 1996 Olympic champion in match sprint cycling; Frank Moeller, 1996 judo bronze medalist; and Van Almsick.
East Germany's comprehensive system of talent identification, beginning in preschool, plus talent development in sports schools and clubs and advanced sports science had allowed this former Soviet satellite of fewer than 17 million people to join the USSR and the United States as the world's sporting superpowers. The goal was international recognition for this stepchild of a nation.
"We were taught in school that it takes dozens of embassies but only one Katarina Witt to make East Germany known in the world," Martin Plant, an instructor at the University of Georgia who is from the East German city of Rostock, said of the two-time Olympic figure skating champion.
The means to that end included what East Germany officially called "supporting means"--or doping, developed by endocrinologists at what is now the Institute for Applied Training Science in Leipzig. To those who contend doping was largely responsible for East Germany's success, IAT acting director Arndt Pfuetzner cites the former East German athletes who have undergone relentless doping controls since 1990 but still have impressive results.
Athletes from the East won two-thirds of the medals claimed by combined German teams at the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Six of the 11 starters in Germany's first 2002 World Cup soccer qualifying match, a 2-0 win over Greece on Sept. 1, were from the East.
"When the system collapsed, East German athletes didn't," Pfuetzner said. "They went on with comparable or sometimes even better results. That explains how doping played a marginal role in success. Otherwise there would be no East German athletes after 1990."
Doping may or may not have been marginal, but formerly secret files have provided evidence of how undeniably ruthless the system was in pursuing medals during the 20 years (1968 through 1988) East Germany sent its own team to the Olympics.
The abuses ran from the state-supported doping program, in which performance-enhancing drugs were given even to preteen athletes with no regard for future health consequences, to the meticulously documented spying on nearly every aspect of the lives of elite East German athletes by the former state secret police, or Stasi.
In sports this potent mix of power and paranoia was fueled by a desire to upstage West Germany at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Its effect has been underscored in Stasi documents and in testimony from athletes who were doped--some suffering from ill health, some mothers of children with birth defects--in the recent doping trial that convicted former East German sports chief Manfred Ewald of systematic doping of his country's athletes.
Yet 21 of the 25 East German sports schools still exist, even if the daily curriculum has been changed from what was six hours of sport and two hours of academics to exactly the reverse. (Van Almsick missed too much work to earn a high school diploma; in the past, that would have been overlooked). Twenty-three similar schools have recently been opened in what was West Germany.
"The number of facilities is rising because of these school's effectiveness in developing talent," said Otto Hug, a spokesman for the Frankfurt-based German Sports Federation, which oversees the country's elite and recreational sport. "More children from the former East are trying to enroll because of the standing these schools have with their parents."
East Germany, a dictatorship, called itself the German Democratic Republic. In the past an invitation to attend a GDR sports school was the key to the kingdom in a theoretically egalitarian society that made athletes a privileged class.
"Everything at the school was less important than sports, and we know they took illegal things," Neumes said. "There was one and only one purpose. Swimmers only swam; runners only ran. This specialization can no longer be tolerated."
Each school was part of a sports club. Werner Seelenbinder School belonged to the Berlin club closely affiliated with East Germany's political elite, an association problematic for the school after reunification.
"This was a very symbolic place," said Neumes, whose previous job was in the Neukoelln district of West Berlin, near the now-demolished Wall.
That symbolism was a primary reason for his appointment.
"They had to find somebody who was not integrated in all the things that happened here--somebody without a past," Neumes said.
In the past more than half the students lived in dormitories. Now only 100 of the 1,300 students, ages 6 to 19, are residents. In the past students were the chosen ones. Today they can choose the school, although only after a coach or sports club official has recommended them.
In the past a student like Marcel Bunar, 18, would have been asked to leave because he wasn't meeting specified goals in sport. Bunar, who entered as a soccer player, gave it up because he didn't want to play anymore.
"The past is not interesting for us," Bunar said.
For all that, the ambiance around Werner Seelenbinder School and SC Berlin remains undeniably that of a country whose initials, "GDR," could have stood for "Gray, Dreary, Repressive." At the SC Berlin track, where children 8 to 18 were working out after school, many parents cast furtive glances at a stranger speaking English, as if they might still be reported to the Stasi for unauthorized contact with the West.
"It is not so easy to change the minds of the people," Neumes said.
The old ways
Hartmut Schumann does not believe he ever will entirely get there.
Schumann, 50, is director of the national training center at Kienbaum, a country town 25 miles east of Berlin. Trained originally as a sea captain in Rostock, he has worked at Kienbaum since 1978.
"For the generation like me, born in the 1940s who lived 40 years during East German teams, it has hard to get away from that," Schumann said. "I don't know that psychologically I will ever be totally involved in the new system."
Kienbaum was at the the core of the old system. Begun in 1952 and expanded into Kienbaum I and Kienbaum II in 1980, it is a poor relation to impressive, modern facilities like the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Kienbaum, it is said, was East Germany's kaderschmiede, the blacksmith's shop that had the perfect conditions to forge Olympic stars.
Unlike the sports schools, which had to continue in some form after reunification because there were no immediate alternatives for students already enrolled, Kienbaum was in limbo from 1991 to 1996. Former East German coaches who had taken jobs in other countries helped keep Kienbaum alive by bringing their athletes to train in the facilities, trails and lagoons spread over its 148 wooded acres.
"The IAT was of specific importance in terms of sports science for athletes," Interior Ministry spokeswoman Schmierer said. "The GDR and the Federal Republic guaranteed its future existence in the German unification contract.
"Kienbaum is different. Its existence was guaranteed because it has a good infrastructure, a good training structure and it also is used by foreign athletes."
Kienbaum once was a closed world. Only those with serious involvement in East German sport were allowed inside its main gate. It was a company town: The employees lived in apartments across the road from the entrance.
When its future as the Federal Sports Training Center had been assured, it shifted from being an elite-only training center to one that can be used by almost anyone willing to pay room and board.
A staff that once numbered 220 as part of East Germany's old "full employment" plan has been cut to 40, only two of whom are directly involved in sport. One is director Schumann, the other is Karl-Ernst Wannicke, a Kienbaum physical therapist since 1964.
"It looks like it did 20 years ago," Schumann said, "except the paint was better then."
Facilities that were advanced when first built, such as a 100-meter indoor track with timing devices every 10 meters that dates to 1971, now are more functional than fabulous. But everything had been done to give East German athletes the best training conditions possible when they came to Kienbaum a few times a year, generally before major competitions. Typical were the javelin, discus and shot-put throwing areas, which had garages with large doors in the launching area so the throwers could be out of the rain.
"There was always something new for each Olympic period, but there was a misunderstanding that Kienbaum had vast advantages over comparable centers in the west," Schumann said. "The reason Kienbaum was so successful had to do with the entire sports system, not so much with Kienbaum. We provided 100 percent coverage to find and enhance talent and 100 percent backing for our athletes."
In East German days, top athletes whose sports had training facilities at Kienbaum would come three to four times a year, staying up to a month. Now the facility, which has dorm space for 300, is used mainly on weekends and school vacation times by athletes of many ages and skill levels.
During a weekday visit earlier this summer, the only resident athletes were 12- to 14-year-old triathletes from Saxony-Anhalt, one of the five former Eastern lander, or states, among the 16 states in the Federal Republic of Germany. The sprawling training center's outdoor and indoor facilities--the latter in buildings of stunning ugliness--were otherwise empty.
A tiny interior door in the main building at Kienbaum I led, almost mysteriously, to an enormous, state-of-the-art gymnastics room. The building also contains gyms, a weight room and a 25-meter pool used for recreational, post-workout swimming. The building is totally unadorned--not a trophy, plaque or photo of any of the hundreds of champions who passed through here.
"Once we had many pictures of East German athletes," Wannicke, the physical therapist said. "They took them down. I don't know why, but I think it is pretty stupid."
Blood and water
In the dimly lit pool at SC Berlin, Franziska Van Almsick was working out with a contraption that looked like a whale's flukes. On the pool deck, a coach took blood from the ear of Kerstin Kielgass, a medalist in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics who will compete in Sydney.
Such ear-pricking raised U.S. speedskaters' suspicions when they first saw it being done to their East German counterparts in the 1980s. The blood sampling generally was nothing more than a way to see whether there was any body tissue in the blood, a measure of overtraining.
In the lobby of the pool building, a display lists the names of all the SC Berlin swimmers who won world or Olympic championships. Neither Van Almsick nor Kielgass is on the list.
The list ends with the 1988 Olympics, where East Germany's women swimmers won 10 gold, five silver and seven bronze medals. Only 10 countries at the 1988 Olympics won more total medals in all sports combined.
"With the sports schools," Van Almsick said, "we had the best system ever. "They are the only chance for German athletes in the future."
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