Winter gold: last glow of E. Germany Sports machine is breaking down

February 25, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Contributing Writer

BERLIN -- As Germans bathe in the afterglow of their Olympic success, the eastern German engine that produced these victories is quickly falling apart.

Lacking the rigid discipline, the drugs and especially the money that brought it success, the once-formidable East German sports system lacks the means to train a new generation of stars to take over from the new Olympic champions.

"Even if we got the facilities and money back tomorrow, it would take years to repair the damage," said Juergen Hartmann, head of the Olympic program in the eastern German city of Leipzig.

Germany's Winter Olympics successes -- its 10 gold medals and 26 total medals were tops at the Games in Albertville, France -- and predicted gold at the Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain, (( are made possible by the government's decision to spend $150 million this year on supporting top-level stars, most of them from the East.

Of Germany's 26 medals, eastern German athletes won 20. If these eastern athletes had competed under their old flag, East Germany would have finished in third place, behind the Unified Team and Austria, tied with Norway -- a tremendous success for a country with only one small winter sports region.

Behind this facade of success, however, are dozens of financially strapped clubs, which no longer can afford the coaches, equipment and stipends that produced the heroes.

The clubs once received approximately $500 million a year from the East German government, but they have been turned over to the local state governments, none of which can afford luxuries such as sports. Almost all the clubs' salaries are paid by make-work programs, which run out at the end of this year.

The elite club SC Dynamo Berlin, for example, used to be able to call on dozens of expert trainers and have unlimited use of the rink in the Berlin suburb of Hohenschoenhausen. Now, it has only two part-time coaches for its 25 athletes.

In the past, even the least glamorous club member could count on a sauna, massages, adequate ice time and the services of a dietitian, according to trainer Helga Schreiber. Now, only the few government-supported stars can afford this sort of expert attention, she said.

Schreiber said she is only a little comforted by the club's stars, such as speed skating gold medalist Uwe-Jens Mey.

"They have the support, but the younger athletes don't have the aid that they need. How can we produce another Mey with this?" Schreiber said.

Many of the clubs cannot even get into their old training facilities, because no one is sure who owns the properties. Of the 3,400 sports facilities in eastern Germany, only 200 have been turned over to the clubs.

Many local governments do not want the clubs to have priority use of the facilities, preferring to open them to the public.

In fact, for all the success it brought East Germany -- in 1988, it was one gold medal per 350,000 people -- many East Germans recognized that the sports system was an attempt by the hard-line regime to legitimize itself.

At anti-government demonstrations in 1989 and early 1990, for example, East German protesters carried banners demanding "No Money for Stasi [secret police], Party and Top-level Sports" and "Bread and Games -- Conditions Like in Ancient Rome."

Critics also disliked the sports empire's totalitarian nature. It caught promising athletes in grade school and sent them to sports boarding schools and then to the elite sports clubs, where they learned to become diplomats in training suits. Long training hours, enforced by tough discipline and the knowledge that sports was one of the few ways to the top of the communist system, propelled the nation of 16 million to the front of Olympic medalists and world champions.

The successes also were built on a systematic use of drugs, an independent sports commission concluded last year. Part of the sports research budget went into perfecting steroid use, doping athletes during training and then stopping the treatments just in time for them to pass urine tests at competitions.

Despite such faults, East German sports did provide almost unconditional support to athletic talent, said Hartmann, the Leipzig official. Athletes could concentrate on performance without having to worry about sponsors or holding part-time jobs, he said, and poor youngsters never had to worry about affording expensive equipment.

"The clubs just don't have top athletes. What you're seeing is a last blooming of East German sport," Hartmann said.

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