Politics, always politics, iss getting in the way," said the soft-voiced little German with the face of a friendly ferret. "I am interested in the track records of my opponents, not in their politics."
The speaker was J√ºrgen May, and you may want to make a note of his name. Last winter, running on the grass in New Zealand in one of his rare appearances outside the Iron Curtain, the wiry 145-pounder from Erfurt, near Leipzig, stepped a mile in 3:53.8, which stands as the third fastest mile ever, a mere fifth of a second behind Michel Jazy's world record and only a tenth behind Jim Ryun's time this year at the Compton Relays.
There are those who say that it is J√ºrgen May, not Jim Ryun—and certainly not the aging Jazy—who will burst through the 3:50 barrier, the next big challenge in the mile. Peter Snell, the truculent New Zealander who quit the battle and saw his once untouchable records dissolve one by one in this golden age of track and field, has said of May: "He is the man most likely to break the barrier of 3:50. It shouldn't be long now. It will take a man who can run a very fast half mile and still have stamina." May is a man who can run a very fast half mile. He holds the world record at 1,000 meters, slightly over half a mile, and he flirts with world marks almost every time he appears in a middle-distance race.
It is no wonder that Snell remembers May well. They met last year in an 800-meter event at Prague, and before the race Snell commented in his usual inimitable way: "J√ºrgen May? Never heard this name!" May won the race, and within a few weeks reeled off a new German 800-meter mark, a European 1,500-meter record (since regained, by a tenth of a second, by Jazy) and the world record in the 1,000 meters.
July 17, 1966
But getting to see the brilliant Iron Curtain runner is no simple matter. The same political intrigues that keep him from freely meeting worthy opponents also make it difficult for Western journalists to watch him in action. Although he is widely feared and respected by the Jim Ryuns and the Michel Jazys of the track world, and indeed is their peer in every respect, he is all but unknown to the butcher from Marseille and certainly is unknown to the little old lady from Dubuque. May was invited to race in the U.S., but he was forbidden entry by the U.S. State Department. When he flew to Paris to engage the reluctant Jazy in mortal combat over the metric mile, the Gallic masters of red tape let him sit around the airport at Le Bourget for 12 hours, then told him to run along home. "To make it worse," said the runner, "it was drafty at the airport, and all I took back to Germany for my trouble was a cold." He laughed at the silliness of it all. "It was political pressure from the West Germans that did me in. And not for the first time, either."
Going into East Berlin, one gets a quick dose of the politics that befuddle not only J√ºrgen May but his counterparts who try to make the journey in the opposite direction. I went through the looking glass with a small delegation of Western journalists en route to cover May's appearance in Olympischer Tag (Olympic Day), a track meet featuring runners and jumpers and throwers from 13 nations, most of them behind the Iron Curtain. A short walk through Checkpoint Charlie and we found ourselves immersed in the drear clichés of Red Berlin, the glaring contradictions and inconsistencies, the gleaming facades and the shoddy realities. The passport-control officer on the East Berlin side smiled and nodded and performed minor courtesies, while next to him stood another official who made it plain that he viewed every visitor from the outer world as an Alec Leamas slipping through The Wall to undo with diabolical cunning all the good works of the Kosygins and Ulbrichts and Brezhnevs of the kindly Communist world. A few minutes later we were saying, "Alles in Butter," to a customs guard; this is a traditional Berlin greeting that means literally "everything in butter," and freely translates as "Everything's coming up roses." He looked both ways and smiled wryly. "Sometimes yes," he said. "Sometimes no."
Warmed by the glow of this East-West exchange of intimacy, we began to feel as though we were crossing the border between Oregon and Washington, when suddenly there appeared in an unmuffled frenzy a hot little motorbike bearing two Vopos, Volkspolizei, those dedicated youths whose studied coldness personifies the Eastern regime to most Europeans. They zipped along—their heads moving slowly from side to side, submachine guns cradled in their laps, steel helmets shading their eyes, the look of zombies on their faces—and disappeared around a corner marked by a five-story building with the top three floors bombed into skeletal nudity. Said a visiting journalist from Great Britain: "This is a hell of a place for a track meet."
My own mission was almost aborted from the start. Carrying out an earlier promise, I had brought with me copies of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for May and his coach. A customs official huffed that all capitalist periodicals are banned in East Germany and looked at me with vast administrative annoyance.
"It is only a sports magazine," I said with becoming humility.
He opened the magazine brusquely and pointed to a full-page picture of an Early Times bottle. "Ist das Sport?" he said. Before I could answer he turned to another advertisement, this one showing a shaggy dog wearing a fireman's hat. "Ist das Sport?" he said louder.
"Well..." I said.
He leafed through pages bearing pictures of automobiles, cameras, television sets, Ralph Houk smoking a cigar, a baby, two birds and a glass of Schlitz. "Das ist doch kein Sport!" he said at each page. "That is just not sport." A superior sidled over to see what all the noise was about; he looked at the cover picture of Jim Ryun and said generously, "You may take it in, but you must bring it out tonight." When we said the magazine was for J√ºrgen May he waved us on with wild abandon. Then he turned to the other official and began an earnest conversation, perhaps explaining to him the difference between advertisements and sports articles. Communist periodicals carry no commercial advertising.
The visiting athletes were quartered in a new building called the Sporthotel, a long, low, dormitory-type affair of gray-white plaster and glass, festooned with garlands and flags, including the Stars and Stripes, and surrounded by some six acres of grassy athletic fields that even then were in the process of being mown, with typical totalitarian inconsistency, by two men, a muscular young man riding a gasoline mower and a bent old man wielding a scythe. The athletes were at lunch, sitting in an airy restaurant at tables marked off by miniature flags, with red flowers for Iron Curtain countries and daisies for the infidels. We studied the menu. The specialties of the house turned out to be green eels with potatoes and rump steak with egg, each for less than $2. One could choose from German whiskey, Cuban rum, Soviet vodka, Polish vodka, cognac and two mysterious drinks labeled "Soviet cognac" (75¢) and "Egyptian cognac" (70¢). We bypassed the mysteries in favor of Apfelsaft, a nourishing German cider, and topped off the meal with bowls of cold strawberry soup and a package of American filter-tipped cigarettes ($1.85). A mammoth man with a crew cut, horn-rimmed glasses and a red sports shirt was pointed out to me as an American, and with my usual lack of forethought I rushed over to him and said, "Hi! I'm an American, too."
He turned toward me slowly, folded his massive arms across his massive chest, and said with vast coolth: "Me Rossian!"
"Me American," I whispered, awe-stricken, but he was gone. (The next time I was to see him he was mounting the victors' stand to accept a bouquet of red carnations for winning the shotput.)
Later we watched May work out with Kipchoge Keino, the exciting young Kenyan whose own best time in the mile is less than a second off the world record, despite the fact that he trains with all the gusto of Dagwood Bumstead on his days off. "Come, Kip!" the gentle May said, and led his friend to one of the several 400-meter tracks within a short walk of the Sporthotel. There the two jogged for 20 minutes and talked steadily in English, their common-denominator language. Keino's first language is a tribal tongue, Nandi; his second is Swahili, and May's first language, of course, is German. Keino observed that he was getting tired of front-running all the time. "When you are running in front you are fighting the wind," he said, in what for him represented a major address.
We asked him where was his trademark, the rumpled hat that he likes to flip off his head when he begins to make his move in a race. "I give it to a friend," he said. "I not use anymore." It took him several minutes to explain that someone had convinced him that his hat trick was bush, and as a subinspector of police in Kenya he could not afford to lose any dignity. May nodded in agreement.
There were hundreds of athletes, ranging in age from about 10 to 60, working out on the track. East Germany is engaged in a great leap forward into athletics and, as befits the people of a workers' republic, no one appeared to be paying much mind to the two renowned middle-distance men. Jogging around the track, Keino and May moved out of the way of a paunchy man wearing form-fitting shorts and busily dashing off a two-minute circumnavigation of the track. No one rushed up for autographs, and no one watched in awe. But when Keino and May began doing freewheeling skips and jumps and turns aimed at relaxing the workout, half the athletes on the field decided to join in, and the broad pitch of green turned into a short-lived ballet set. Then the training session was over; there was an East German function that night—the evening before the race—and all the athletes were expected to attend. May observed that he thought Keino probably would set a fast pace the next day, and that he would do his best to keep up. Keino said he would formulate his strategy on the track.
At Jahn Stadium, the sprawling sports center where the race would be held, we sought credentials for the affair. "Amerikaner?" said the man at the gate incredulously. For several hours we sweated out the chain of command. A nervous, middle-aged man with shaggy hair passed us along to a tight-muscled younger man fetchingly attired in an athletic supporter, who summoned by telephone a pregnant woman, who introduced us to a pleasant little man, who said that he knew an American from Mississippi and another from Harvard and found Americans difficult to figure out.
Finally we were in the presence of a genuine pro, the press chief, a Herr Gitter, who seemed pleased to see the American press and handed us a package containing 10 pounds of East German sports information ranging from booklets on athletes' records to a bound volume celebrating the sporting accomplishments of his countrymen in 1964. There were 19 publications in all, in French, German and English, including colorfully written biographies of East German track stars ("Rosemarie Shubert goes in for sport since her early childhood." "In 1945, at the age of 12, Fred D√∂ring was confined to bed whilst other children went in for sport and games." "Heinrich Hagen is working as an electrical engineer in Rostock's deep-sea harbor and is in charge of designing telecommunication and signal installations. How can one train marathon with such immense and responsible task?").
Another booklet pointed out that East German athletes had won five gold, 13 silver and five bronze medals at the Tokyo Olympics, no mean accomplishment for a nation of only 17 million souls. A booklet called A New Chapter in the History of German Sport told how the East German Republic had thrown all the ex-Nazis out of the sports movement and also noted, in so many words, that the West German sports authorities had done nothing about anything. We learned that J√ºrgen May is a national hero, suitably decorated, that he is 24 years old, a sportswriter on an East German newspaper by trade and the fun-loving driver of a Czech-built Skoda automobile by avocation, that his training schedule embraces 365 days a year, including running up and down hills, against weights and through sand in the Arthur Lydiard tradition, and that his style is to take off like a sprinter, run alone up front and "stamp into the finish with trembling knees but long strides," this practice a result of his having fallen and been badly spiked at the start of an early race.
Gradually I read myself to sleep against a mysterious distant backdrop of explosions. Some said they were sonic booms from Russian fighters; some said they were the sounds of demolition along the Berlin Wall, and some said they were merely the products of my fevered capitalistic imagination. That night I dreamed of vaulting to the top of the Berlin Wall and going down in a fusillade of machine-gun bullets, like Richard Burton, my blood spattering over the sheets of paper on which I had scrawled in code all the secrets of the track meet, secrets for which the Western world would pay plenty. My dreams are always overwritten.
The next day the newspapers were busily trumpeting the glories of Olympischer Tag. Neues Deutschland, the official Communist newspaper, noted that Keino holds the 3,000- and 5,000-meter world records and figured to jump off to a fast pace. West Berlin's Berliner Zeitung quoted Keino's coach as forecasting a time under 3:40 for the metric mile, a mild prediction but one which excited sportsminded East Berliners. Karl-Marx Allee—the showcase street that serves as the East Berlin equivalent of the Potemkin villages visited by Catherine the Great—was freshly scrubbed, and huge signs in colorful mosaics and artistic flourishes heralded the glories of the working classes and the Olympic Day.
But on the back streets one saw the same chilling sights, the end results of 30,000 Russian cannon firing at will into the city 21 years ago: a pile of rubble 100 feet high, a quarter of a mile wide and almost a mile long, with brush trying to gain a footing up its sides; a single remaining shattered wall of the Anhalter Railroad Station serving to show where the area's Grand Central Station once stood; blocks and blocks of weed-cluttered fields where East Berliners are reluctant to plant badly needed vegetables for fear that their shovels will touch off live shells; the husks of tall buildings so long untended that thick bushes grow from the litter on the tops; long rows of hastily built barrackslike apartments under which the local people hesitate to walk for fear a balcony will come crashing down.
By the end of the working day, East Berliners were queuing up for tickets to the evening track meet at prices equivalent to 15¢ for children and $1 for adults. Flags of all the participating nations flew from the ramparts of Jahn Stadium, a workmanlike sports arena with no sheltered seats and a clear view of two Vopos studying the border through binoculars on a watchtower atop an adjacent roof. We took our seats in the press box, which already was half filled with women and children and other journalists, and we were soon joined by four Vopos, two on one side and two more behind us, some of the hundreds of Volkspolizei who had somehow managed to get the evening off to see the races. I quickly drew the conclusion that the Vopos are about the sloppiest-looking policemen in the world. They wear V-neck jackets with either undershirts or skin peeking out; their buttons are more often undone than buttoned, and they wear shoes of their own choosing, including winklepickers, the pointed footwear of the British Teddies. It is difficult to build up respect for a cop in a V-neck and winklepickers. For the most part they sat quietly, although I managed to overhear one of them engaged in what at first appeared to be a deep discussion on some superserious matter. I caught a single sentence: "Why do you suppose it is that you never see a flat-chested javelin thrower?"
Minutes later, the Vopos jumped to their feet to watch the finish of the women's 100-meter sprint. "Hinsetzen!" a brave man shouted behind them—the German phrase for "Down in front!" The Vopos glared, fidgeted and sat.
Two hours before the big event, the 1,500 meters, the rains came, sheets and torrents and gales of rain, accompanied by streaks of lightning and Wagnerian rolls of thunder. The crowd, now grown to about 7,000, dispersed to the nearest shelter, an administration building and gymnasium adjoining the stadium. There they jammed into the halls, while our little journalistic group luxuriated in a large room full of tables and empty chairs. Every now and then a sports fan would timidly open the door, look in and disappear. "See how disciplined they are," said a French journalist. "They don't even ask if they can come in and sit down. If this was France the room would be packed now. And if this was America they'd be in here dancing on the tables."
"We will have no world records today," said another gloomily.
"Yes, we will," said the indomitable Frenchman. "For running on soup."
When the rain let up we returned to a scene of fire and smoke and frenzied activity in the stadium. The athletes had been furnished with brooms and shovels, and they fell to with a spirit not unbecoming to citizens of so many workers' republics. Dainty young girls flailed away at the water on the track. Men in sweat suits poured gasoline along the approaches to the high jump and long jump and then ignited them to boil off the water. The work was spectacular but ineffectual. One beefy athlete made the mistake of dipping his right foot in a long ribbon of gasoline and then lighting a match. Foot merrily ablaze, he raced across the track and slid footfirst into a deep puddle with a style that would have done credit to George Washington Case, while the crowd hooted and laughed and called out wisecracks. "Ein Buddhist!" cried a hairy-legged woman, and a male spectator in lederhosen shouted: "Got a light?"
But all the best efforts of the proletariat could not dry a track so thoroughly saturated by the rains of Eastern Europe and the rest of the events limped along, while the crowd shouted "Ja! Ja! Ja!" and "Tempo" (meaning "Keep up the pace") at the struggling athletes, whose track shoes made a steady slllp, slllp, slllp against the suction of the ground. Alas, even the vaunted 1,500-meter race turned into a mere exhibition, with Keino and May struggling to reach dry land, finding themselves boxed in and merely going through the motions, except at the very end, where May put on one of his characteristic last-ditch sprints in an effort to overhaul the eventual winner, Harald Norpoth of West Germany, a dark horse who was one of five four-minute milers in the race and clearly the best of the mudders. The time was a slow 3:46.2, with May finishing two-tenths of a second back and Keino further behind in third place at 3:46.9. "A race to forget," said the disappointed sports journalist J√ºrgen May. "A race not to write about."
But at the finish there occurred an event that may be of political significance and may merely be a note on sportsmanship, in which the East Germans abound. To listen to all the East and West German propagandists, one would believe that these two sundered nations bear undying grudges against each other, like typical estranged brothers. And now here was Norpoth, the villainous West German, coming across the finish line and into a claque of cheering, screaming admirers. A chant went up: "Harald! Harald!" And then the fans began pouring out of the stands, ignoring the entreaties of the guards, and drowned the gasping Norpoth in admiration. The Olympic silver-medal winner (in the 5,000 meters) appeared to be deeply touched by the scene. Keino and May joined in the congratulations, and Norpoth was asked if the race had been difficult. He said, "Races you win are never difficult." And when he was asked if he would run again in East Germany he said it would be wunderbar. For just a few minutes under the scudding clouds of Red Berlin, it was alles in Butter all over again.