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Behold The Shining Star Of The G.D.R.

Jan. 20, 1986
Jan. 20, 1986

Table of Contents
Jan. 20, 1986

NFL Playoffs
Memphis State
Katarina Witt
College Basketball
Bowling
The Hawk
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Behold The Shining Star Of The G.D.R.

Lovely Katarina Witt, the world and Olympic figure skating champion, is a luminary in her hometown of Karl-Marx-Stadt

Today, the Red Menace hopped in her Soviet sports car, shopped a little downtown, found some friends to gossip with, eschewed the come-ons of some nefarious boys, signed a few autographs, pined for Schokoladeneis (Häagen-Dazs), remembered her diet, tooled back to her apartment, spent a couple of hours not doing her homework, drove to figure skating practice, turned on the tape of Michael Jackson's Beat It and did a Marxist moonwalk, which she does on skates here in Eastern Europe.

This is an article from the Jan. 20, 1986 issue Original Layout

Other than that, it was a slow day for eroding the moral fiber of the Western world. But then, that's the problem with 20-year-old Katarina Witt of East Germany. She's so fresh-faced, so blue-eyed, so ruby-lipped, so 12-car-pileup gorgeous, she makes a lousy enemy of capitalism. Forget Raisa Gorbachev; here's Katarina, 5'5" and 114 pounds worth of peacekeeping missile.

And who could help but be swept away by the wondrous Witt, a sight more enchanting than any Elbe River castle; East Germany's Olympic golddigger in Sarajevo; an ethereal dancer who rises above earthly ice, doesn't need it, never touches the stuff. Katarina the Great. Kate the Skate. O Katarina, don't be late, for you remind the heartbeat of someone. But whom? Lissome. Bacall? Elegant. Deneuve? Yet fresh. Brinkley? And that smile. Dazzling. Disarming. Debilitating. Di?

This is a face an American cosmetic firm offered a modeling contract. (It was rejected by the G.D.R. Sports Federation, every superstar's agent in East Germany.) This is the face that gripped the writing hand of males across the world after her vision was broadcast from Sarajevo and forced them to fill her bathtub with love letters ("We ran out of room for them," she says). Included in the 35,000 tub sonnets were "many, many from American boys," she says, including a few proposals, marriage and otherwise.

But this is not just another triple-take face and drop-dead body. She can skate. Her Sarajevo performance was the first to hit the perfect blend of art and athleticism, pirouettes and panache. As skaters go, Witt is Michael Jordan playing in a YMCA league. She has won two consecutive world championships, and a third in Geneva in March would make her the first woman to take three straight since Peggy Fleming (1966-68). She is the first female skater to make midair miracles look fun. Elaine Zayak of the U.S. may have been a pioneer of the multiple triple, but Zayak sometimes looked as though she had swallowed something nasty just before takeoff. Witt can spin a triple (four in her Olympic long-program performance) and make it look like something to do on the way down to the 7-Eleven.

All of which brings us to the obvious question....

Hey, Katarina, what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?

A 23-foot-high bronze head of Karl Marx glowers fiercely from its granite pedestal: black eyes staring a hole in this town, black six-foot nose all out of joint, one-story-high Grizzly Adams beard jutting out so wide and mean that it nearly crosses the street and knocks workers off their shoes. Then again, this is his town, Karl-Marx-Stadt, deep in the heart of the G.D.R. And anybody with a 23-foot head sticking out of a lump of granite can look as hacked as he wants.

Still, this is Marx's kind of town. No sticky romance like Berlin. No corruptive beauty like Dresden. Just workers and smokestacks, smokestacks and workers—proletariat paradise.

Ah, but up on the hill, above the smothering gray, is the rose that grew in the pavement.

Today Witt wears pink cropped pants, a pink, blue and black sweater, a chic blue oversized coat, pink scarf, blue suede boots, and blue, blue eyes. The coat she got in Hungary, the rest in France, but Dorothy always comes back to Kansas and Katarina always comes back to Karl-Marx-Stadt. Home is home.

Although the G.D.R.'s wunderkind system of Olympic success is a science, it was not design but chance that brought Witt to greatness. Living on the hill not far from the Küchwald rink in Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz before 1953), Katarina was five years old the day she first saw skaters glide. She begged her mother to enroll her in the skating club. At 10, she was taken under the tutelage of the G.D.R.'s most famous and fearsome skating coach, Jutta Müller, who paid her brilliant student 20 marks ($7.50) for turning her first triple Salchow. Müller became Katarina's parent, more than her mother, Käthe, who once danced with a folk dancing group before becoming a physical therapist, and more than her father, Manfred, a department director at a plant and seed co-op. "It seems easier to go to her with my problems, more than to my parents," says Katarina of her coach, "except that she doesn't like to hear about boyfriends."

No, Müller, now 57, lives for skating. Though a handsome skater once herself, it was not until she left the ice to coach that she climbed the top step of award platforms. In all, Müller has coddled, pestered, tricked and summoned from her charges 48 international medals, 23 golds alone, including Anett Pötzsch's first at the Lake Placid Games in 1980.

Half of Müller's secret is that if you skate for her, you do it looking as if you have just stepped out of a stretch limo at "21." To Müller, style is as paramount as triple Salchows. She spends hundreds of hours teaching smiles, contact, glitz and sass. Besides schooling Witt in the intricacies of splits, spins and toe loops, Müller coifs Katarina's hair, applies her makeup and fusses about her costumes. More than for any master of the sport, for her the look must be just so. "If Katarina has put on a little extra weight, I see it immediately," Müller says. "It's not that she can't jump anymore. It's just that I want that ideal look. I want the skater's figure to have absolutely no fault. For esthetic reasons, it must be absolutely perfect. And that takes discipline."

Discipline means no Eis (ice cream), no staying out late at the disco (Witt adores dancing), no zooming about at all hours with her friends in her Soviet-made Lada ("I go too fast," Katarina says) and, since there is so little time left after six hours of practice and the specialized sports high school that she attends, no Liebchen (sweetheart). That's cool, says Witt. "I just like to flirt." Besides, "a skater should be there for everybody," she says. "Imagine if the people hear that I'm tied down! They would be quite disappointed."

And she does flirt with her crowds, shamelessly. She has been taught to pick one face out of an audience and play to him, as though when the show were over, and if the moon were just right, the two of them might catch a pizza and a flick. "A skater does not skate just for herself," Müller says. "She should please the crowd."

Nobody in skating does it better than Witt and Müller, an intoxicating team. To help the evening along, Müller is partial to American musicals. For years, she banged on an electric piano in her apartment in Karl-Marx-Stadt in search of songs that would set the right mood for Witt. She has fallen mostly for Gershwin, and, thus, Katarina has tripped the ice fantastic to Girl Crazy's I Got Rhythm and Embraceable You.

Witt has been a flamenco dancer (she took flamenco lessons and watched the movie Carmen), a Hungarian peasant bride, even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (she wanted to wear knickers as Mozart, but the International Ice Skating Union insisted on a dress) and now a belly dancer, complete with a spangled Arabic dance outfit that looks like it cost several hundred marks, including three or four pfennigs for the cloth. It has, she admits, "very little material."

Does sex sell in the G.D.R.? Did Lenin sleep in red pajamas?

But Witt is not just another socialist sex symbol. She can be whimsically stubborn and unpredictable. At the 1985 world championships in Tokyo, the finals came down to a duel between Witt, the defending world champion, and America's 17-year-old Tiffany Chin. Witt skated first, scoring high enough to require near perfection from Chin. But instead of going back to her dressing room, Katarina stood by the rail to watch, an unheard of notion and somewhat nerve-racking for Chin, who fell and lost.

At home, Witt is much the same. Does this sound like teenagers you know? "I'm kind of an independent person," she says. "Sometimes I'll be with my friends and I'll just decide to jump in my car and go somewhere. Before you know it, my friends are saying, 'Where did Kati go?' And I'll have just taken off!"

During an interview for a G.D.R. TV educational special called AHA (the idea is you watch the show and at the end say, "Aha!") on the history of figure skating, there was this:

Q: Kati, doesn't skating have to do with physics?

A: Well, no, I think not so much with physics.

Q: Yes, but what you mean to say is skating is a scientific development, right?

A: No, I think it's not so much of a scientific development.

His interview hijacked, the broadcaster gave up and looked for somebody more malleable, while Katarina skated merrily off. A star is a star is a star, even if star is a dirty word in the Eastern bloc.

"In our system," Müller says, "we do not raise stars. Whether in sports, business or any other sector, we don't create them. It's part of our education." The G.D.R. may not believe in stars, but have you seen Katarina's tub lately?

Here are other star signs: In the G.D.R. you apply for a car and it takes 10 years to get it. You want an apartment? It can take nearly as long. You want to visit the West? No problem: When you're 65, you can visit the West. Witt, on the other hand, has her own apartment, has the Lada and has traipsed the globe. Unless she applied for the apartment and the car at 10, she is getting the star treatment.

But Witt is not just a star, she is a breathing, breathtaking billboard for the G.D.R., and Katarina knows it.

"When I'm on the ice, I'm thinking about my program and about the championship," she says. "I don't have to skate well for my country. It's simply an athletic effort. You think, 'You've trained all these years, now it's time to show what you have learned.' But once you stand on the podium and the anthem is played, then you are very proud. You see the flag of your country, and you know a million people are watching on television. People see the G.D.R. has again a good athlete."

She is a sweat-suit diplomat for the East German way of sport. "Our system is good," she says. "Every child has a chance. Parents don't have to have a lot of money. Our coaches don't have to be paid like in other countries." Adds Müller: "If he [Katarina's father] had a million marks, he could not have afforded what Katarina has been given. From what I hear, in the U.S. coaches charge as much as $25 for 20 minutes. Then there's ice space, a ballet instructor. I've heard it could cost a million dollars in the U.S."

At any rate, Witt is not likely to defect. For she lives, comparatively, like a queen, travels the world, is lavished with attention ("and she relishes that," says her brother, Axel, 23, once a talented soccer player, now a student at the College of Physical Culture in Leipzig), and, most of all, because, she says, "this is my home." In December, on her 20th birthday, she applied for membership in the elite Socialist Unity Party, to which only 13% of G.D.R. citizenry are invited.

And so Madison Avenue will just have to drool. "If she were an American her face would be everywhere," says Fleming. "I mean, look at her."

But how long will Witt continue to compete? Already, distractions are popping up everywhere. "If I had a day off?" she says. "Oooooh, I would sleep late in the morning, walk around town, drive somewhere just for the fun of it, go skiing, read in bed all day, go dancing and just be lazy."

When she kids with sister-in-law and fellow gold medalist P√∂tzsch (Anett and Axel married in 1984), Witt insists she must keep skating: "Anett has won seven medals—four European, two worlds and an Olympic. I only have six. I can't let her have one more than me!" When pressed, she says she will skate to the end of the spring and then make a decision. But the '88 Olympics?

It's doubtful. In the G.D.R. there is no Ice Capades waiting with big marks. Yet there is no pressure to go on as an amateur, either. Witt could become a model, though modeling would be a step down for an ice princess. She could attend any school in the Eastern bloc and study any subject she chooses (she prefers languages). She could go to school in Leipzig with her brother and sister-in-law ("but I would never be a coach," she says). Decisions, decisions.

Advice from Pötzsch: "It's a much better feeling if you are leaving as a world champion or a gold medalist than to leave having lost. But then, it is very hard to give away the moment of victory. You like to relive it again and again."

All indications are we won't see Witt in Calgary. She would be 22 by then, and this is a girl's sport. Too, the Müller Machine has an understudy waiting in the foyer, 16-year-old Constanze Gensel, a pert blonde who can jump out of the rink.

Men around the world will sit down in '88, ostensibly in the name of sport—Honey, did I tell you how much I like figure skating—only to find their Katarina gone. What? No Katarina Witt, the warmest thing to hit the cold war since vodka? Now that's a sobering thought.

But wait...there is a solution. Hey, Katarina, you busy next summit?

PHOTODAVID WALBERGWitt's busy schedule includes ballet lessons, school and hours of skating practice.PHOTOADN[See caption above.]PHOTOADNThe versatile Witt has been a Hungarian peasant bride, Mozart and, here, a belly dancer.PHOTOPAUL J. SUTTON/DUOMOWitt's victory at Sarajevo (above) was one of Müller's (left) 23 golds.PHOTODAVID WALBERG[See caption above.]PHOTODAVID WALBERGPötzsch (below) won the gold at Lake Placid in '80, while Gensel (right) is skating in the wings for '88.PHOTOENRICO FERORELLI[See caption above.]TWO PHOTOSADNWitt now has her own apartment in Karl-Marx-Stadt, but just a year ago she and her stuffed animals resided with her parents.