IN AN AUDITORIUM ON A DEAD-END STREET in East Berlin, a
middle-aged man named Volker Ranke is speaking some of the clearest,
most official-sounding German you would ever hope to hear. With its
hard consonants and throaty resonances, German has a fairly
authoritative tone about it anyway, but the way it's projecting this
morning from Herr Ranke, the vice-president of East Germany's Sports
and Gymnastics Union, makes his words sound like the secular gospel.
This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1988 issue
''Certainly our sports facilities aren't the best,'' he's telling
a roomful of foreign journalists who have assembled to find out why
East Germany quadrennially dominates the sports-loving nations of
the world out of all proportion to its population. ''There are so
many other things of importance in our society, like housing and
health care, that must take precedence.''
Herr Ranke pauses with fidgety irritation while his remarks are
translated. Then he goes on: ''The idea that we invest more in sport
than in other fields -- that's not the case. We spend less than one
percent of our national budget on sport.''
One percent of East Germany's national budget works out to roughly
$660 million a year, and that's a little or a lot, depending on how
you look at it (the U.S. spends roughly that amount on the Small
Business Administration). But no matter. A journey through East
Germany's purely state-supported sports system suggests that the
country's athletic success can't be attributed merely to money. Nor
can it be credited to 21st-century contraptions, anabolic elixirs or
any one of a number of other suspected secrets, as many Westerners
have cynically come to believe. Rather it's what happens when
doctrinaire Marxism, practiced in a nation of 16.7 million in an area
roughly the size of Virginia, is crossed with the sort of pragmatism,
organizational skill and exaltation of physical culture that is
Twenty years ago the International Olympic Committee finally
permitted the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to field an
Olympic team of its own, one it didn't have to share with West
Germany. The G.D.R. won 30 medals in '68 and has increased its
combined winter and summer medal haul in each successive Olympiad --
to 80 in 1972, 109 in 1976 and 149 in 1980. Yet 1976 was the last
time that East Germans faced most of their Western counterparts in a
Summer Olympics. The U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games
artificially inflated the G.D.R. medal total, and the East Germans,
while privately crestfallen at having to do so, followed the Soviet
Union's lead in passing up the L.A. Olympics in 1984.
That makes Seoul the first real Summer Olympic test in a dozen
years for the G.D.R. machine. Even more important, these Games find
East Germany's fossilized party leadership looking at the Kremlin,
with which it has always marched in lockstep, with an increasing
sense of unease. The drum major in Moscow is rapping out a whole new
beat. The G.D.R.'s ruling Socialist Unity Party, which is larded with
septuagenarians and is headed by 76-year-old General Secretary Erich
Honecker (who has outlasted Khrushchev, Kosygin, + Brezhnev, Andropov
and Chernenko), has no desire to embrace glasnost.
The people may ultimately demand change, and youth is already
showing signs of restlessness. But Honecker reiterates his fealty to
''the proven way.'' He isn't likely to open up or restructure, if for
no other reason than that the G.D.R., by Eastern bloc standards,
works fairly well.
So long as statism prevails, the East German sports machine will
chug along. And in the view of Dr. Karl-Heinz Bauersfeld, who
supervises scientific research at the G.D.R.'s College for Physical
Culture in Leipzig, it will chug along in any event. ''Support for
sport wouldn't be endangered if we were to reorder the economy,''
says Bauersfeld. ''Sport is a constitutional right in our country.
((Article 25, Section 3 -- you can look it up.)) Its role simply
isn't going to be minimized.''
Yet East Germany certainly owes much of its sporting glory to
socialism of the old school. Society may be classless, but there's a
rarefied sports elite for whom the waiting list for a car or an
apartment is shorter. There are no professional sports to siphon off
the athletically gifted, just a culture that somehow turns the
50-kilometer race-walk into a glamorous pursuit. Sports permit the
common citizen to travel abroad; tantalizing West German television
broadcasts, easily picked up in the East, stoke a young person's
wanderlust. Put the shot, society is saying, and see the world.
If you're good enough, that is. To join that elite class in the
G.D.R., a young person must negotiate a system that will identify him
(or her) early, train him intensely and probably weed him out unless
he has a reasonable chance to win an Olympic medal. The East German
contingent in Seoul will be half the size of the U.S.'s. There will
be no G.D.R. basketball, field hockey or water polo teams, no
equestrians or fencers. Gaping holes will be in the country's
powerful complement of track and field athletes. Yet the East Germans
are likely to leave South Korea with more medals than the U.S. ''It
isn't that we won't send people who may not win medals,'' says Peter
Herrmann, associate editor of Start, an East German sports monthly.
''But as a small country, we do not have the resources to send
In track, for instance, the East Germans do not hold trials as
such. The G.D.R. Olympic Committee decides who will make the team by
taking an athlete's results from four or five competitions and
comparing them with the current Top 10 lists of world bests.
Sentiment plays no part in the process. The standard in the men's
javelin is 83 meters (272.4 feet). A male sprinter has to turn in a
45-flat in the 400 meters to go to Seoul. Gerd Wessig, the 1980
Olympic champion in the high jump, fell 6 centimeters (2 3/4 inches)
short of the G.D.R.'s Olympic cutoff, 2.34 meters (7 feet, 8 inches),
and will spend the Olympic fortnight plying his trade as a chef who
specializes in gravies.
Indeed, East Germany's male high jumpers, long jumpers, 400-meter
hurdlers and 800-meter runners may not be tasting any Korean cuisine,
having failed to measure up to the standards set by the G.D.R.'s
uncompromising Olympic officials. And since 1972 the state has not
produced a single world-class pole vaulter -- a fact that makes some
symbolic sense, if you consider the Berlin Wall metaphorically. There
persists in the world of East German sports a cold, matter-of-fact
way of deciding which athletes are more equal than others. It's not
uncommon to hear the P.A. announcer at a track meet, even as an event
unfolds, refer to one athlete as ''the favorite,'' or to another as
turning in ''not such a good time.''
If the track announcers didn't throw in their two pfennigs' worth,
the spectators would still be forming their own opinions. There are
some 400,000 certified coaches, trainers, umpires, judges and
referees in the country, and more than 20% of the population belongs
to the Sports and Gymnastics Union, which maintains some 18,000
sports clubs. Most of these clubs are affiliated with local
industrial or agricultural concerns, and they make their facilities
available to anyone living in the area. For example, at the Fiko
Sports Club in Rostock, which is supported by the fishermen's
cooperative in that Baltic port city, 1,700 of the 2,300 members are
children 16 or younger.
Starting as early as age six, gymnasts in Rostock develop a
routine. They leave school at noon and head for Fiko's main complex,
on the outskirts of town. There they eat lunch, grab a nap on cots
set up in a room adjacent to the gymnastics hall, then train intently
from 2:30 to 5:00. The functional- diagnostics laboratory at the
College for Physical Culture will have already processed the results
of various tests on the most promising among them, to determine
whether they are really suited for gymnastics or should be steered
into some other sport. All the while, bird dogs are canvassing clubs
such as Fiko for talented athletes who might merit being sent to one
of the 22 elite clubs around the country. Perhaps 40 of Fiko's
1,700 children will advance to that next level.
The Traktor Sports Club in Schwerin (pop. 125,000) is one of those
athletic finishing schools. It serves the county of Mecklenburg, a
predominantly agricultural region tucked away in the northwest corner
of the country. While Cottbus is known for its cyclists, Jena for its
female sprinters and Potsdam for its rowers, Schwerin has a knack for
turning out sailors (owing to the more than 600 lakes that dot the
region) and boxers.
To concentrate resources, each elite club specializes in a mere
handful of sports. Traktor Schwerin offers only track and volleyball
in addition to boxing and yachting. In the gymnasium, used primarily
for cold-weather javelin throwing (nets are hung from the ceiling),
hoops just isn't happening; in fact, the rectangles on the basketball
backboards are painted below the rims instead of above them, as they
should be. ''Our population is limited,'' says Gerhard Fidelak,
Traktor Schwerin's volleyball coach. ''So, we can't field both a
volleyball team and a basketball team, as both require tall athletes.
And we don't have the ability to do both swimming and water polo.''
This division of leisure means that a 15-year-old yachting prodigy
from, say, Karl Marx Stadt, in the southern part of the country, will
have to relocate to a place like Schwerin if he wants to develop his
talent. He'll attend the high school adjoining the club and live in
the dormitory on the school grounds, where he'll be served five meals
a day. He'll spend half his time in training: on the water, at chalk
talks, or in the weight room, which is decked with posters urging
disarmament and promoting holidays in Havana. If he should hurt
himself, Traktor Schwerin's crack medical staff -- six doctors, 10
physical therapists, four nurses and five technicians -- is at his
The young athlete's parents will pay about $25 a month for all
this, including room, board and tuition, but they will see him only
on an occasional weekend. A commuting Mecklenburger who is out of
school, such as discus world- record holder Jurgen Schult, now 27,
doesn't pay anything, of course. ''The athlete takes from the club
and pays it back with his achievements,'' says Traktor Schwerin
president Wilfred Jaeger.
Schult came to track late, at age 14, when a Traktor Schwerin
coach spotted him in a district cycling championship near his
parents' farm just outside the city. ''The coach noticed I had some
strength because I almost destroyed the bicycle,'' says Schult. Sure
enough, diagnostic tests revealed a physique better suited to field
events than cycling, which he liked, or soccer, which he loved.
Schult tried the javelin and shot put before settling on and
mastering the discus.
His six-year-old son starts school this fall. Which sport will he
''I'll leave it completely up to him,'' says Schult, ''although I
may offer some hints.''
One of the most common charges Western critics level at the G.D.R.
is that young athletes are coerced into practicing the sport that
will bring the greatest glory to the state. Officials heatedly deny
this. ''Competitive sport against the will of the athlete is
impossible,'' says Hermann Brandt, Traktor Schwerin's track and field
coach. ''We do not force anyone into any sport against his will.'' To
be sure, the state technically doesn't demand participation; rather,
society, in the thrall of the state, does. Sports provide East
Germans with one of their few opportunities for Western-style
self-fulfillment, from indulging the relatively innocent urge to
travel to catering to the baser hunger for individual celebrity. It
behooves a young person with talent to apply that instinct optimally.
Westerners also envision East German athletes as having all sorts
of state- of-the-art technology at their disposal. You would never
get that idea from the College for Physical Culture, a decrepit
agglomeration of dingy halls and outbuildings that covers 36 acres in
downtown Leipzig. It looks like Medicine Ball Tool & Dye. The most
visually impressive thing is just off the entrance hall of the main
classroom building: a vaguely cubist portrait of figure skating diva
Katarina Witt. She looks nothing like the coquette she has been
portrayed as in the West, but rather like Mother Courage. She's
wearing a brown smock and an expression that seems to radiate the
''socialist personality traits'' that government literature gives
sports the responsibility of inculcating.
In a society where the cars still sputter along on two-stroke
engines, sport becomes a field for technical innovation simply
because so much manpower and mind power is channeled there. Yet the
result isn't particularly high tech. It's rather exalted high school
science-fair stuff, applied to very specific purposes. Protocol
requires that all results at track meets be passed between +
officials in writing, so a jerry-built pulley ferries score sheets
from the judges' stand high above the finish line to the waiting
stewards down on the field. If the track is wet, a roller squeegee,
which looks something like a push mower, dries it off by spinning
moisture up and into a trough affixed to the back of the contraption.
In fact, East Germany's most sophisticated training device -- it's
so advanced that the G.D.R. has actually exported it to several
Western nations -- is its boxing robot. The robot has a padded
humanoid torso and wheels under its base, and it leads boxers around
the ring according to any one of eight different programs. Sensors
inside the torso count the number of blows landed and relay the
information to a digital display screen on the base. A second-
generation robot even hits back. There's no truth to the rumor that
the third generation will compete in Barcelona in '92.
Easily the most widespread suspicions about East Germany's success
concern the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The speculation
persists even as the G.D.R. is leading the call for stiffer testing;
Dr. Karl-Siegfried Pieper, who heads the sports medicine laboratory
in Leipzig, even favors a longer list of banned substances. With so
much else going for it, East Germany would in theory benefit more
than anyone from a ''level playing field'' in which drug- free
competition was guaranteed. Yet so long as athletes in the West keep
using steroids, it is naive to think that the East Germans don't put
those sports-club medical staffs to work, mixing some potions to
develop strength and other potions to mask those potions, and then
testing the athletes over and over before international competitions
to avoid embarrassments. In point of fact, only one East German
athlete has ever tested positive.
The athlete happened to be a woman, 1980 Olympic shot-put champion
Ilona Slupianek, and that only fueled what is perhaps the most
insidious allegation against the East Germans: that their women
athletes -- of which there will be two for every man in Seoul -- are
less female than their Western counterparts. American swimmer Shirley
Babashoff, her judgment no doubt impaired by losses to East German
women during the '70s, helped popularize this complaint. Ignoring for
a moment that Babashoff herself, at 5 ft. 10 in. and 150 pounds, was
just as imposing as G.D.R. star Kornelia Ender, her putatively
amazonian nemesis, it's worth noting that, in the U.S., there is no
organized effort to scout big-boned women and steer them into
If the Leipzig institute has an anteroom where women are turned
into men, or men into supermen, it is well-hidden. ''The majority of
our Western visitors are surprised,'' says Bauersfeld. ''Most of them
think we are only showing them 50 percent of the college. They think
there is another college underground. I assure you, this is it. You
can go down to the basement if you want.''
So what did this visitor finally conclude? Well, the East Germans
excel not just because they're preternaturally competitive people who
began the postwar era with nothing, although that's part of it:
''Success often comes from working in difficult circumstances,'' says
Dr. Paul Kunath, head of the sports psychology department in Leipzig.
''You'll find that most Nobel Prizes were won that way. In the
postwar conditions we learned such things as organization, teamwork
and choosing the best ideas available.''
And it's not just that the East Germans are Marxists. If that is
the secret, why has Coach Karl's playbook gone unread in most of the
rest of the Eastern bloc? ''It is a political thing with the athletes
in the G.D.R.,'' says Hungarian Olympic canoeing coach Janos Parti,
whose country has also done well at the Olympics. ''They want to see
their flag fly highest. Their athletes work towards a future, money,
for trips abroad.''
Nor is it just that they're Germans -- after all, West Germany,
with 3 1/2 times as many citizens, has not approached the success of
its erstwhile kin. ''You should stop thinking of the G.D.R. as a
place where we plan every single detail,'' Ranke insisted, before
sending the visiting scribes off on a tour during which every single
detail was planned. ''We approach athletics with joy, and we train
But being German probably doesn't hurt. In the end it may be
simply a matter of Prussians -- the most precise Germans of them all
-- living in a totalitarian society, wanting to compete and excel,
and having few other fields in which to do so. So they chuck javelins
and tack upwind and try to pare a few milliseconds off their time in
Mark Twain once wrote, ''Work consists of whatever anybody is
obliged to do. Play consists of whatever anybody is not obliged to
In East Germany, sport straddles the line between work and play.
It is a very fuzzy line indeed.