For the first 20 of her nearly 22 years, Katrin Krabbe led a quiet enough existence in Neubrandenburg, a sleepy city of 85,000 in the middle of what used to be the German Democratic Republic. Oh, members of her family might have guessed that she had a sprinter's spirit, for as a toddler she had to be attached to a leash when her grandmother took her about town on errands, lest she impetuously dash off on her own. But nothing else much distinguished her. And the state encouraged ordinariness, delivering from the numbing sameness of everyday life only those with the potential to deliver extraordinary athletic performances. Krabbe, who moved into a dormitory at the Neubrandenburg Sports Club school at age 13, was thought capable of such achievements, though no more so than many other young people weaned on sport in East Germany's constellation of specialized clubs and schools.
Krabbe has seen her life change every bit as precipitously as has her country over the past two years, during which the Berlin Wall has come down and East and West Germany have come together. With her long legs, high cheekbones and riveting smile, she has become a poster girl, figuratively and literally, for the new Germany and its untidy transition from antagonistic parts to tentative whole. She chose as her coming-out party the final occasion on which East Germany competed as an independent nation, the August 1990 European Track & Field Championships in Split, Yugoslavia, where she won gold medals in the 100 meters, the 200 and the 4 X 100 relay. A year later, at the World Championships in Tokyo, she ended a season of uneven performances by beating the world's No. 1 women's sprinter, Merlene Ottey of Jamaica, to win golds in the 100 and 200 and bronze in the 4 X 100 and 4 X 400 relays. In the process, Krabbe upheld the hoary East German sports tradition of peaking at the biggest events. In another respect, however, she has developed an entirely new knack. "She hit her peak performances," says her father, Klaus-Peter, "at just the right moment to capitalize on them."
That's capitalize as in capitalism. To the party functionaries and sports bureaucrats in East Germany, Krabbe was given those long legs to turn in world-class times. To the marketing and media executives in the West, however, they're part of a package that can sell products. She pushes Taifun, a line of German sportswear for women, and Goldwell, a brand of German hair-care products. She has an exclusive deal with Bild, the Hamburg-based tabloid, to share her innermost thoughts. "She's a great vehicle," says Ian Campbell, director of international sports marketing for Nike, which supplies the tires for what is rapidly gaining a worldwide reputation as the best set of wheels in track. In 1991, Krabbe, once indentured to the Marxist state and required to turn over all her winnings to the East German sports federation, will make about $200,000 from running and three times that in additional income.
"She's the new sports hero for the united Germany," says her Dutch manager, Jos Hermens. "Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, they are the old German heroes. As a party member, [Olympic medalist sprinter and long jumper] Heike Drechsler [box, page 88] is associated with the old G.D.R. Katrin came at just the right time."
October 20, 1991
Hermens also represents two other female track stars who ran for East Germany, 400-meter runner Grit Breuer and 800 specialist Sigrun Wodars Grau. Like Krabbe, Breuer was ranked No. 2 in the world in her event by Track & Field News before Tokyo; Grau had won the gold in Seoul in 1988. Yet even as Krabbe trailed Ottey in the rankings, sponsors didn't care. "I bring up Grit or Sigrun, and companies aren't really interested," Hermens says. "It's just Katrin, Katrin, Katrin. It's incredible and frankly frustrating sometimes. It doesn't matter if she loses, as long as she's in the picture."
Breuer, only 19, is dark and engaging, but she just doesn't conform to the West's notion of Teutonic womanhood. "Krabbe is a classic example of how a star is made," says Volker Kluge, sports editor of Junge Welt, one of the old East German dailies making a go of it under the new order. "The horny old men who make marketing decisions saw her in Split, saw that she was blonde, German and had long legs, and said, 'We'll make her a star,' simply because that's what they imagine a star should look like."
Yet Krabbe has been as much a victim of her timing as a beneficiary of it. Each day the mail brings its own evidence of the mixed blessings of reunification. There is the usual stack of fan letters and autograph requests from love-struck boys and admiring girls who congratulate her for beating out Graf in the balloting for Germany's 1990 Female Athlete of the Year. But there are angry letters too, mostly from citizens of eastern Germany, where alienation is commonplace amid a population accustomed to the abiding support of the state and where more than a million people are still jobless.
Elfi Krabbe scrupulously answers all the letters that her daughter receives, even those from down-and-out or jealous correspondents whom she tries to assuage with sympathy and goodwill. But the Krabbes have been shaken by two written threats, including one that promised to blow up the new sporting-goods store Katrin and her live-in boyfriend, world-class kayaker Torsten Krentz, have opened in Neubrandenburg. Katrin grits her teeth. "You live with it," she says. "It's not pleasant for the family. But there are so many beautiful things happening that you learn to take the rest."
Katrin's father spent years trying to prevail upon the authorities to install a telephone in his home. Today he's grateful that when he finally got one, he decided to keep the number unlisted.
Die Wende, which means "the change or turnabout," is the deceptively innocuous-sounding phrase Germans use to refer to the upheaval with which they are struggling. Shortly after the Wall fell, former West German chancellor Willy Brandt declared with grandeur, "What belongs together can now grow together." But the inclination of nature is toward entropy or disintegration: The erstwhile Soviet Republics, for instance, shouldn't have too difficult a time adapting athletically as the U.S.S.R. falls apart. The three Baltic republics will break cleanly from mother Russia and field their own Olympic teams, as may some of the other newly independent Soviet states, although coaches and athletes there show little enthusiasm for spending the effort and money to become relatively minor players on the Olympic stage. Coming suddenly together, on the other hand, seems to go against nature. And in sports as elsewhere, East and West Germany have thus far proved to be a poor fit.
For 21 years the East Germans made Olympic athletic success the surpassing triumph of their political system by winning medals out of all proportion to their population. Indeed, sport was a constitutional right in the Democratic Republic-Article 25, Section 3; you could look it up. But the old sports machine is barely recognizable in the merged Federal Republic. Prospective gymnasts and figure skaters are no longer culled from classes of first- and second-graders and packed off to special sports schools, often hundreds of miles from their homes. Many of the coaches, doctors, physiotherapists and lab technicians formerly at the disposal of the elite athlete are unemployed or will be soon. A chance to travel abroad, once a powerful motivator, is no longer special in a land where rubble from the Berlin Wall is being used to build new highways.
The world-renowned Institute for Physical Culture in Leipzig was the cornerstone of the East German sports system. Today it still exists only because the reunification treaty guaranteed it. The staff has been cut by more than two thirds, enrollment is down an equal amount, and one of the school's playing fields is now a sales lot for a car dealership. "I had studied at the Leipzig institute before the change, but I dropped out because I could see there was no secure future in coaching or sports," says Uwe Dassler, 24, who won a gold medal in the men's 400-meter freestyle swim at the Seoul Olympics but has struggled since. "I'm hoping to get a job at a bank so I can become a clerk. As a successful athlete in the G.D.R., all doors would have been open to me. Sport was Number One. Now it's in last place."
To be sure, athletes from East Germany haven't been completely abandoned. They are eligible for Sporthilfe, or "sports aid," the stipends that West Germany has been paying its athletes, based on performance, since 1968. In addition, government-funded advisory boards are doing their best to match athletes with sponsors and jobs. But to the Ossis, or "easties," Sporthilfe is thin gruel. "In the G.D.R., the state spent money so you could become a champion," says Kluge of Junge Welt. "With Sporthilfe, you first have to be one before you can get any money. That's the big problem. When you're a champion, you have money anyhow. The task should be to get you there, and now it's left to chance."
Ossi athletes labor under a further handicap. There isn't much sympathy for them on either side of the old divide. Wessis are jealous, fearful that their eastern counterparts will take precious spots on unified national teams. They're cynical, too, as a result of evidence that East German athletes were reared in a drug culture so pervasive that they were reportedly given steroids in their teens, often without their knowledge. (For her part, Krabbe denies that she ever used performance-enhancing drugs.)
In the East, meanwhile, there's an antiathlete backlash. The state of Saxony recently voted not to spend a Pfennig on elite sports. Nonetheless, many of the athletes in the east of Germany, never much beloved because of the perks they received, are still comparatively privileged—well-positioned to do such things as open sporting-goods stores, as virtually every athlete with a name seems to have done. As a result, many can relate experiences similar to those of Krabbe arid Krentz. Dreschler's sporting-goods store in Jena was burglarized; someone broke into the country house of ice-skating diva Katarina Witt, making off with jewelry, clothing and several bottles of wine.
One of the distinguishing features of the East German system was that no sport outranked any other. The state held the superb yachtsman or rower in as high regard as the champion hurdler or swimmer, and supported all accordingly. Now the free market is blessing some sports at the expense of others, and Krabbe, for one, can't understand why. "My boyfriend is a two-time world champion." she says. "I know Torsten trains just as hard as other athletes. Only there's no reward. The athletes in many sports hardly have what they need to live on. I think it's sad. It's said they don't lend themselves well to marketing. But I don't see why not."
The marketplace has been as generous to Krabbe as it has been grudging to Krentz. With an outlay of more than $1 million this year, Nike sponsors not only her but also the entire Neubrandenburg Sports Club. Since Grau and Breuer are also members of Neubrandenburg, it is arguably the finest women's Hack club in the world. Neubrandenburgettes got five individual golds at the 1990 European Championships, finishing first in every sprint event, plus the 800 and the shot put. Few countries did so well.
Nike is mildly surprised that a long-stemmed Valkyrie like Krabbe has turned out to be such a good saleswoman. "It's been our experience that if you're a German athlete, no one cares about you elsewhere in Europe," says Campbell. "But Katrin carries no baggage. You'll find her in The Times of London, in L'Equipe, in the media everywhere. I don't think there's been anyone quite like her. Chris Evert was sort of the girl next door. Katrin is different. She's glamorous. It's a difficult thing for her, living up not just to expectations on the track but also to being the Grace Kelly of the sport too. It's brought pressure she's not prepared to deal with. To take any athlete, least of all one from the East bloc, and shove her on the cover of every magazine isn't easy."
Perhaps most difficult has been the process of acclimating herself to the predatory ways of the western media. In Split, Krabbe had told reporters that she and Krentz were to be married a few weeks later. But when she soon snuck off to a holiday camp in Turkey with Michael Hill, who was Nike's liaison to the Neubrandenburg club, the newly vigorous German press—in Berlin alone, 14 dailies are fighting a circulation war—tracked her down. Heinz Sünder, a reporter for the Swiss-Bavarian magazine Monaco, confronted the couple while they were eating and cut a deal: $4,400 in exchange for an interview and photo shoot.
"Now I know why they call Krabbe 'the Golden Girl,' " Sünder wrote in his account of their meeting. "For those $4,400 I got nothing but 'I don't know,' 'I can't talk about it' and 'It doesn't interest me.' Moses was able to draw water from stone; I couldn't get anything usable out of Krabbe.... According to her bio she was actually a student once, and wanted to become a teacher. She must have had an epiphany one day, because she doesn't want to be a teacher anymore. 'It's not possible,' she says. 'To be an elite athlete and a college student, that's too much.' Thank god—generations of future students are safe."
That's the kind of treatment to which Krabbe has become accustomed. Another unflattering story in YOU, the magazine section of Britain's Mail on Sunday, likened her to "a human BMW or Mercedes: a running machine in a blonde, beautiful body, except where there should be a heart there is a cold microchip; [she is] a sort of female Spock without the pointed ears."
Faced with these notices, Krabbe has been counseled not to fight. Krabbe and Hill sent Bild pictures of them noshing intimately at a sidewalk cafe in the hope that the newspaper would stop following them around. And then Hermens quickly cobbled together the deal with the notorious tabloid, which provides for Krabbe to sign her name to the occasional column. "We told Bild exactly why we made the deal," he says. "We don't want them to be too negative, and this assures that they won't—plus they pay. They said, 'Well, if Katrin commits a murder or something, we can hardly ignore it.' "
After the YOU piece appeared, Krabbe expressed her exasperation at the poor notices. "I don't know what people expect from me," she said. "If I'm going to produce top performances, I need peace. But how can I concentrate when I'm constantly pursued by photographers? Under the circumstances it only makes sense that I look irritated or refuse to sign autographs or seem cool."
Thus she has her sympathizers, among them Kluge, who has seen her under both systems. "Krabbe was normal and natural before the change," he says. "Now she has developed a defense mechanism. When she's friendly, it's only an act, because she's been bought. She doesn't even want to be a star. But because she wants the money, she's forced into being someone she doesn't want to be. I feel sorry for her, because I have a feeling they're going to destroy her."
Krabbe struggles all the more now because her instinct is to keep control of her life even as she sells off pieces of her privacy. Those close to her remark on how she winces at photographs showing her in full exertion, even when they depict her most glorious triumphs. She knows some English—her handlers believe its mastery is essential if she is to make the most of her marketing and promotional opportunities—but she's reluctant to speak it, again because it makes her seem vulnerable. She is most comfortable at fashion shoots, where everything is a pose and a smile can evanesce as soon as the shutter has opened and closed.
"If you could see her with her friends, you wouldn't consider her cold," says Hermens. "She's just trying to keep some protection, some privacy. In the old East Germany, running came first, and it didn't matter if you were cute or not. She thinks sponsors simply take the place of the state and that she doesn't have to do anything extra. But with every passing month she gets a better sense of how it works."
Early on a Friday morning in June, not yet nine o'clock, the streets of Neubrandenburg are full of people accustomed to getting along perfectly well without fanfare or garish display. Yet against the backdrop of one of the four gates to this medieval city, a huge inflatable shoe appears to have lost its way from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Beneath it is a red, black and white motor coach, whose sides are graced by the distinctive heraldry of Nike. K&K, the sporting-goods store Krabbe operates with Krentz, who seems to have forgiven her her gallivanting in Turkey, is celebrating its official opening.
From loudspeakers, the music of the Chi-Lites, the Isley Brothers and Gladys Knight pours forth, as does Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On, a title which is felicitous in its approximation of Just Do It, the day's operative phrase. People file into the store, examining the teal-and-fuchsia Lycra leg warmers and $130-$150 cross-training shoes as if they're museum pieces. Outside, from a window above the store's marquee, an old man, bleary eyed, gazes down at the scene as if just awakened from a long sleep.
Most of the stars of the Neubrandenburg club—including Breuer, Grau and Astrid Kumbernuss, once the world's top-ranked woman shot putter—have turned out to fete the couple, and each takes a turn signing Nike freebies. Even a few of the world-class athletes on hand for this afternoon's huge international meet linger outside the Nikemobile, offering up their John Hancocks. Among them is Michael Johnson of the United States, the world's best quarter-miler. He isn't ignored or unappreciated exactly—just hugely incongruous. Imagine, say, Ossi actor Armin Mueller-Stahl backslapping with regulars at the Friars Club.
And then comes Katrin. Dazzling as ever. But there's a harried distraction to her manner. She wades into the crowd of these people she grew up with, signing with alacrity but without so much as once pulling her head up to meet the eyes of her public. It is as if she knew that she would have her head down while performing this task, and that is why she is wearing the light-brown hair band that keeps every tawny strand swept back and in place. The scene is strangely quiet and unthreatening: Hereabouts, mobs still haven't figured out how to mill and surge—just as Krabbe hasn't yet figured out exactly what is expected of a celebrity.
"Katrin Krabbe is as much a part of Neubrandenburg as the four gates," says a well-dressed man in his 30's.
A young mother confesses that she is very envious of the local businesswoman's prosperity.
Krabbe and who? wonders a 13-year-old girl, pondering the K&K logo.
"Torsten Krentz," says an onlooker.
"Torsten Krentz?" she says. "Ich kenne ihn nicht." Never heard of him.
At the meet later this day Krabbe loses to Nigeria's Mary Onyali in the 100. Afterward she seems to want to frown or otherwise betray her disappointment, for she has been raised to believe that finishing second isn't something to smile about. But the cameras are insistent. Fifteen photographers surround her at the finish line, and she indulges them all. She is where she has always been, in Neubrandenburg. Only it is in the West now, and here it matters not only whether you win or lose, but how you play this bewildering new game.