Sports machine and a trainer retool for one Germany BARCELONA '92

July 26, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

NEUBRANDENBURG GERMANY — NEUBRANDENBURG, Germany -- The sports machine of the now-defunct communist East Germany used to stamp out Olympic world champions like gold coins from a mint.

Tabloids in now uneasily united Germany crow that this year their team will win more than 100 medals at the Barcelona Olympics, the first since The Wall between East and West Germany came down in 1989.

If it does, at least half the team will be from the East, more if you include easterners who have moved to West Germany. And the now-defunct German Democratic Republic had only about 16 million people, a quarter of the population of the west.

In the three decades or so the GDR sports apparatus existed, its athletes won 519 Olympic medals, about two-thirds of them gold.

East Germany is number three in world sport championships, behind only the Soviet Union and the United States. At Barcelona, many Germans think their unified team will be Number One.

But the fall of The Wall between the Germanys and the collapse of the GDR also revealed that the sports machine was badly corroded and many of the athletes counterfeit -- adulterated by drugs, genetic engineering, Stalinist training regimens and the state secret police.

In the GDR, sports had been diplomacy carried out by other means. Sports had become, in fact, their greatest success.

"In the old times, the slogan was: Athletes are diplomats in training suits," says Walter Gladrow, a teacher in the sports high school in this northern German city and a trainer at Sportsclub Neubrandenburg.

But if sports in the old communist police state had a human face it belonged to Walter Gladrow.

Gladrow has been a trainer at Sportsclub Neubrandenburg virtually since it started 30 years ago. He's been a sports teacher, as he puts it, for 35 years. He's 58 and an extraordinarily fit and painfully thoughtful man. He's long and lean, and even at ease, folded up in his chair at his desk, he exudes a kind of quiet drive, like an idling Mercedes.

But he's also the kind of guy who relaxes by raising cactuses at home and watching the swallows nest on his balcony. He once wanted to be a language teacher. He studied Latin six years. He did learn and teach Russian along with sports. But now he concedes that he has long been focused on sports.

He has trained world-class athletes for years, often developing a fatherly relationship with them. But he's never made any more than his high school teacher's pay, the same as any other teacher's, about 1,300 East German marks a month, something like $900 at current rates.

And now because he's past the 55-year-old mandatory retirement age for teachers, he's faced with losing the job he loves. He likes working with teen-agers in school more than with world champions, he says.

The dismantling of the old East German sports machine threatens to dismantle his life.

"I'm a very simple man at a very difficult point in my life," he says.

Gladrow trained his first championship track and field athlete about 20 years ago. He's been particularly good during the years with middle-distance runners, mostly women training for the 800- and 1,500-meter events.

His athletes will have been at five Olympics, including Barcelona. His first gold-medal winner was Brigitte Koehn, a member of the 4x400 meter relay in 1976.

This year he'll have three Olympic runners, two Germans and, unexpectedly, a Swede.

He's the 800-meter trainer for Germany, and a little surprised -- and thankful -- to have been chosen by the essentially West German track and field federation.

His German runners are famous. Sigrun Wodars Grau and Christine Wachtel finished first and second in the 800-meters at Seoul in 1988. He has worked with them all through their careers. He has just returned from the German training camp in St. Moritz, Switzerland, confident of their chances to finish among the top three at Barcelona.

But it is perhaps Maria Araka, his Swedish runner, who pleases him most. She runs the 1,500 meters. She's 26 and at the games for the first time. He just hopes she'll make the finals.

"She came to Neubrandenburg last year and asked to be trained by me. I was very surprised," Gladrow says. "She is very nice, very hard working and very modest. She's made me a lot of happiness."

In the old times in GDR, as Gladrow says, talented kids were scouted early, in elementary school if they were swimmers or gymnasts. They were invited or sent or ordered to sports high schools and then on to "elite" sports clubs like Neubrandenburg if they showed enough promise.

A vast and complicated apparatus of coaches, trainers, doctors, masseurs, psychotherapists, psychologists and a host of nameless functionaries supported the athletes.

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