Runner's Web

Athletics in the GDR

Introduction: This is the third 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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Sprinter Katrin Krabbe Seemed Bound For Olympic Glory. Then A Doping Suspension Helped End Her Career...

By Philip Hersh, Tribune Olympic Sports Writer, September 14, 2000

Neubrandenberg, Germany--She was tall and willowy and fair and blue-eyed and fast, the 1991 world champion in both sprints at 21. The Grace Kelly of track and field, people were calling Katrin Krabbe.

"This is not a role one would have liked to play, just because one was privileged by nature," Krabbe said. "All of Germany did not have a very good sprinter for a long time, and that is why they all fell to their knees like worship."

Only a few minutes earlier, it had been Krabbe who was down on a knee, helping a customer try on a pair of sneakers in the sporting goods store she co-owns with ex-fiance Torsten Krentz, a former world champion canoeist. That role reversal is symbolic of the dramatic turn from stardom Krabbe's life has taken.

At 30 she could be at the height of her sporting career, one of the contenders for a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics. But Krabbe never made it even to the 1992 Olympics because of a doping suspension she suspects involved more than the allegedly manipulated test and the ensuing positive test that led to it.

One of the former East Germans suspended at the same time, Grit Breuer, kept training during her three-year suspension. She returned to win a bronze medal on the 4x400 relay at the 1996 Olympics and was set to run two events at the upcoming Sydney Games before she withdrew last week with a bad back.

Krabbe trained until becoming pregnant with her first child, born in 1995, then stopped cold. Asked what physical activity she does now to keep a shape that looks the same as it did a decade ago, she answered, "Nothing."

"One is proud of what one reached," Krabbe said. "Certainly if it hadn't come to a sudden end, one could have gone much further. It didn't, and that is just a fact of life."

Krabbe was speaking through a translator. She used the impersonal pronoun, one, as if to distance herself from the discussion. She was sitting in a restaurant around the corner from her store, opened in April 1991. Nike had provided some initial financial backing and further support until the suspension. She still sells Nike goods.

There is only one small photograph of Krabbe visible in the store. It shows her winning the 100 meters at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, where she also won the 200. Krabbe says the photo sat on a table in the store's office until an employee hung it over an interior door.

"One doesn't feel the need to hang oneself about like that," she said.

A picture of Krabbe on this early-summer day would show a mother of two--Bruno, 5, and Aaron, 2--dressed in black capri pants and a velveteen short-sleeved shirt. She has a diamond stud in one side of her nose and contrasting streaks of auburn and frosted gilt in her hair. She uses her married name, Zimmermann.

Her husband, attorney Martin Zimmermann, was not one of those who vainly helped her try to fight the suspensions. The first came after she, Breuer and a third teammate provided allegedly identical urine samples at an early 1992 training camp in South Africa. That suspension was lifted four months before the 1992 Olympics, but another soon followed when she and Breuer tested positive for the banned substance clenbuteral. It kept her home from Barcelona.

How ironic that seems. Over the years of East German sports dominance, only one of its track athletes ever tested positive, even though documents released after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall showed nearly all had been given "supporting means"--the East German euphemism for performance-enhancing drugs. After barely a year of a unified German team, its biggest star was caught.

One of Krabbe's U.S. rivals, Gwen Torrence, said after the suspension had briefly been overturned: "We know she's not a clean athlete."

"One had a feeling they tried to make an example out of this case," Krabbe said, "but feelings and emotions and reality are two different things."

Krabbe believes she may have been a victim of her outspoken nature. She was not one to hide her allegiance to the old East German system, which provided her an education and coaching at one of its sports schools for the equivalent of $20 per month. That included full board. Now such an education costs 10 times as much.

She won five gold medals for East Germany at the 1988 World Junior Championships and three golds at the 1990 European Championships, the last time East Germans competed in track and field under their own flag. A year later at the worlds, she won the only two golds for the unified German team.

Her 1991 income was estimated at $450,000. She was the last track star off the East German assembly line and the first to capitalize, big time, on rewards available after reunion with the West.

"Having owed all one's successes to East Germany, it was very strange to hear the unified German anthem at the 1991 world championships," she said. "One couldn't identify with it at that point. There was a certain detachment.

"Saying this was a thing one could have held against oneself. One was often accused of being too outspoken."

For all that, Krabbe said she had no trouble switching from one economic system to the next.

"It wasn't that the world broke down," she said. "One did not have trouble coming to terms with the new system."

She realizes, in fact, that the timing of the change was perfect for her--she had just become a major athletic star and was set to become even bigger at the 1992 Olympics.

If crossing from communism to capitalism seemed easy to Krabbe, being a crossover star did not.

"That was very new and very interesting at first," Krabbe said. "One met many new people, had many new options, found out many new things. One was, of course, proud, but one quickly found out fame had two sides.

"One was put onto a pedestal and portrayed as a person one would never have considered oneself to be. One's friends would say that whenever a camera or microphone was present, one behaved in a different way. One didn't like being a different person. It was part of self-protection."

In Neubrandenburg, where her presence in a restaurant is unremarkable to other diners, Krabbe appears to live in peace and quiet. She will watch the Olympics on TV as she has since 1992.

Of Marion Jones, the current star sprinter, Krabbe said only, "She's very fast.

It was time for Krabbe to pick up her children. She left the restaurant and walked down the street, moving at a pace few pedestrians would maintain, even if real speed is a thing of her past.

"It is all getting somewhat remote and misty," she said when asked about the highlight of her sports career.

"It is always said one's successes are one's prime. In that respect the three European Championship titles in 1990 were a moment of great success and pride, especially with that being one's major success during what was still East German times."

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