As Germany unifies, East program crumbles

March 24, 1991|By Phil Hersh | Phil Hersh,Chicago Tribune

MUNICH, Germany -- Her former meal ticket, Katarina Witt, was tooling around town in a new pink Porsche. But the wheels have come off the East German sports machine that Witt's coach, Jutta Muller, used to drive Witt to the top.

Witt's star quality defied boundaries, helping her prosper in a world with two Germanies or one. The two-time Olympic champion has done a movie, a television special and an ice-skating tour, and she recently signed a lucrative endorsement contract with Danskin.

Meanwhile, Muller and the star-crossed skating club where Witt's talent was honed to slick perfection are living from hand to mouth.

The ironies of that situation do not disturb Muller, 62, as much as the situation itself. "Katarina is beginning her life, and I am ending mine," she said.

For Muller, it is a dramatic ending. The changes that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 reduced East Germany's ruthlessly efficient sports system to rubble even before reunification swallowed up the remnants 11 months later. In no way was that better illustrated than by the fact that Muller's home, Karl-Marx-Stadt, reverted to its pre-World War II name, Chemnitz.

The Chemnitz Ice Skating Club, where Muller trained skaters who won three Olympic gold medals, two silvers and one bronze since 1968, nearly lost its main rink when the regional government was negotiating its sale to a supermarket chain in western Germany last fall. The rink stayed open only because the deal fell through.

"We are open, but we have no club leadership, not much time for the elite skaters and no money," Muller said. "We are alone."

The money had come directly from East Berlin, which spent hundreds of millions annually on building the country's reputation through sports success. Its birth-to-medals sports system provided athletes with support that was unmatched anywhere in the world.

"Maybe we are one Germany, but my life was in the other system," she said. "Maybe the system was in the end not good, and maybe it is good we have a new life in Germany, but. . . ."

But life in the unified Germany has been far from comfortable for most former East Germans, especially those who enjoyed special privileges under the communist system. The merger of the two disparate societies remains more a geographical than functional or psychological reality.

Many eastern Germans resent the way they are being treated as poor relations in the prosperous West. There was another example of that in the World Championships opening ceremonies, which celebrated 100 years of German figure skating.

No former East German skaters were asked to perform, even though Witt and Christine Errath, who won the 1974 world title in Munich, were here for the championships. Witt was doing commentary for West German television, and Errath was a free-lance journalist for a Dresden newspaper.

At least Witt is employed gainfully virtually full-time. Errath lost one job, and her ice show is foundering because eastern German audiences cannot afford to attend it. And two other former East German skating stars, 1980 Olympic champion Anett Poetsch and two-time world champion Gaby Seyfert, are out of work.

Seyfert had been a choreographer in ice and water ballets. Poetsch was working as a research assistant at the former University for Physical Culture and Sports in Leipzig, which has been changed from the scientific research center for the East German sports system to a general university. Coincidentally, Poetsch is Witt's sister-in-law, and Seyfert is Muller's daughter.

"I have to change my life, too, and it is not so easy," Muller said.

Muller is a hummingbird of a woman, less than 5 feet tall, whose attention flits about a room incessantly. As she talks, Muller pecks her questioner's arm with a finger, swirls off to ask a German friend for help with an English word, then pecks the arm again. There is an urgency in her movements that does not seem required by the situation.

Before the demise of East Germany, Muller was formidable and distant. Her protection of Witt was overbearing or necessary, depending on point of view.

Muller was relentless in her attempts to keep Witt's sweet tooth under control so the skater could win her constant battle against weight gain. The coach is said to have ferreted through the skater's trash to determine whether Witt had been eating ice cream or other junk food.

Her current skaters, Ronny Winkler and Simone Lang, are not good enough to demand such scrutiny. Winkler was 20th in the men's competition at the worlds, Lang 13th in the women's.

Muller's best skater, 1990 European champion Evelyn Grossman, was unable to compete here because of persistent sinus problems that finally demanded surgery.

Muller has had feelers from clubs in both western Germany and the United States. She remains in Chemnitz out of a sense of obligation, to both her club and her skaters, especially Grossman.

"I don't have to stay; I want to stay," Muller said. "Many people have left our club. When I go, I think the club goes down."

Muller is asked if she is the wall holding her club together.

"Sort of," she said, "but I am an old wall."

"And a strong one?"


Muller's hope is that the German Olympic Committee designates Chemnitz as an official ice skating training center.

"If we don't get this, it will be very difficult to continue," she said. "Maybe in half an hour we will have to close."

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