In the summer of 1989, Sybilli Schimmel’s life was traveling along as if it were on autopilot. After all, the routine had been the same for years. An eight-year veteran of the East German women’s handball team, Schimmel would rise early in the morning in her one-bedroom apartment in East Berlin, have a bite to eat, then climb into her exhaust-spewing Trabant automobile for the 10-minute ride to her sports club.
There, she would spend the entire day practicing with the team, lifting weights, running and listening to coaching lectures. At some point in the day Schimmel would also find herself flushing down the toilet the steroids that were routinely given to her by the coaching staff. It was business as usual for an East German athlete.
But even as that summer progressed, there were signs that Schimmel’s autopilot life would change. The hushed voices of political dissenters grew in volume. And when autumn settled and the people gathered in the streets, demanding the end of communist rule, Schimmel and all her fellow East Germans decided to take control of the stick, and shut off the autopilot button for good.
“I have a whole new existence now,” says 26-year-old Schimmel, in a room in her new sport club in West Berlin. “I have more money, a new car–no `Trabby’ anymore–and a new apartment [in West Berlin] with two bedrooms. A new existence of Sybilli Schimmel has begun.”
It’s telling that Schimmel defines her new life by discussing the basic changes in lifestyle rather than her athletic career. For years, East Germany showcased its athletes as the primary successes in a “successful” political system, only to neglect the everyday needs of its citizens. Now, as is the case with Schimmel, democracy seems destined to care for those needs. As for sports–and women’s sports in particular–however, the story is different. With children’s sports schools closing, private sponsorships for most women’s sports lagging and state funding for athletes diminishing, women’s sports in a unified Germany face the unenviable task of living up to their lofty reputation without many of the factors that made that reputation possible.
As a member of the East German women’s handball team, Schimmel’s work was always a bit more strenuous than that of the other members of the socialist society, but it was also much more rewarding. In exchange for their athletic talent, women athletes were given educations in the nations elite sports schools, a salary that was at least 50 percent higher than the average East German (often paid by the army or secret police, of which many athletes were ostensibly members), and monetary and material incentives for superior achievement in international competitions. The opportunities to travel throughout the world, too, were luxuries that only a handful of East Germans were permitted.
It was the promise of such luxuries that had attracted thousands of women to athletic careers ever since East Germany decided to use sports as a vehicle for promoting communism in the mid-60s. As long as the medals continued to roll in, they were told, the government would provide.
And roll they did. Since their first Olympic competition as an individual national team in 1968, East German athletes have won 192 gold medals. East German women garnered 95 of those golds. For a country with a population about equal to that of New York state (roughly 17 million), the results were staggering.
How did they do it? First of all, the East Germans had a plan. Knowing they had limited funds to work with, the government chose to promote sports that could return the most medals for every dollar invested. Thus, the so-called “medal-maximum” sports, such as swimming, track and field, luge and rowing, were given the most money. In these sports, not only could one superb athlete win several medals, but the athlete’s training and equipment costs were relatively paltry. Team sports that could only garner one medal and that required more equipment and staff support, meanwhile, were virtually cut off from funding.
Women’s athletics, on the other hand, were viewed as a veritable gold mine of “medal-maximum” sports, primarily because women’s sports had yet to be brought into the era of modern training. “It was easier [to win medals] in a discipline like women’s track and field than in men’s track and field, in which training had already been very [serious] for a long time,” says Norbert Skowronek, the executive director of the Berlin Sports Federation.
And because the East German women were the first to jump headlong into extensive weight training and heavy aerobic training, they were able to develop more quickly and more completely than the women of other nations, who were still too leery of jeopardizing their feminity to experiment with such techniques.
“I remember the 1972 Olympics in Munich, there was a woman named Renate Stecher–a woman with such shoulders,” says Skowronek, extending his hands beyond the width of his own shoulders. Stecher, the 100-meter and 200-meter Olympic champion in Munich “ran much faster than the other girls,” he says. “To get such high quality you must train much more than the others.”
To get such high quality, some would argue, you must also sometimes cheat. For years, the East German women were scrutinized for their oftentimes masculine appearance, while somehow always managing to pass drug tests. And although sports officials and athletes now acknowledge the widespread use of anabolic steroids, few are willing to speak openly about the extent to which such drugs were used.
“We didn’t talk about it,” says Sylvia Gerasch, a former world-record holder in the 100-meter breast-stroke, when asked about steroid use among her teammates. Gerasch, who admitted to taking steroids for a period two years before setting the world record, was reluctant to discuss the use of steroids among her teammates. “It was more an individual thing,” she said. Schimmel, meanwhile, says all her teammates on the national handball team were given steroids by the coaching staff, but most chose to flush the steroids down the toilet, because they “did not want to look like men.” She estimated, however, that 30 percent of the team did take drugs.
But neither steroids nor the incentive system nor the long hours of training could claim credit for the East German women’s dominance of the ’70s and ’80s. Such credit belongs to two elements, according to the nation’s sports leaders: an extensive system of finding and cultivating talent in the children’s sports schools and the expertise and sheer numbers of coaches, trainers and sports scientists whose careers were devoted to athletic perfection.
Twenty-three children’s sports schools were sprinkled throughout East Germany, each one catering to two or three different sports. Every child was tested for physical fitness and growth potential before he or she reached the age of eight and was either selected to go to sports school or sent to regular school. The youngest children–most often gymnasts–would start at the sports schools at the age of 6, and all were paid a monthly salary from the age of 10.
Meanwhile, the supply of coaches at the schools and the training centers was inexhaustible. The East had about one coach for every three athletes (the ratio in the West is one to 20). Because the coaches in the East worked closely with some of the world’s best sports scientist, the level of expertise among East German coaches was often superior to that of the West.
Buoyed by the successes of the system, fans in East Germany rallied around the athletes and coaches for years. But the support was not ironclad. As the ’80s brought economic stagnation throughout the Eastern Bloc nations, the VIP status of elite athletes became increasingly vexing to the general populus. Last fall, theretofore. when the public cried out for democratic reforms, changes in the sports system were high among the list of demands. A $500 million-per-year sports system could no longer pacify a public that lacked basic necessities.
When the West German government agreed to absorb the East into its economic and political system, the final nails were put into the coffin of the East German sports machine. “It was a perfect system in the GDR,” says Karlheinz Gieseler, who was the executive director of the West German Sports Federation for 25 years until his retirement last December. “But you cannot bring it into a democratic system. A democratic sports system is entirely different from a socialist one.”
The primary difference is money. Finding the kind of money needed to sustain the East German sports system after unification was out of the question. Since the spring of last year, when the East German sports authority came under the control of the West German Sports Federation, money has been scarce. For the second half of this year, the West German government gave $60 million to the East German sports authority, in effect saying, “Here you are, don’t spend it all in one place. And for good measure, you can disband the army and secret service teams, too.”
What are the results of this austerity? Gone are most, if not all, of the children’s sports schools. Gone are at least 85 percent of the 4,000 East German coaches who were often hailed as the world’s best. Gone are the Olympic training centers. Gone, too, are many of the athletes who dominated their sports–”To other countries,” says Werner Neumann, one of five executive directors of the East German sports authority. “We haven’t the money [to keep them].”
Because of the anemia of the East German economy, the money may not be there in the future, either. The fate of the coaches, athletes and training centers is intrinsically linked to that of the East German economy, the prognosis of which is about as good as that of lasting peace in the Middle East. Nearly half of the nation’s work force of nine million will be out of work by the spring of `91, economists say, as industries expected to invest in eastern Germany are balking.
Without a strong economy, the one thing that keeps a democratic sports system thriving–private sponsorship–is absent. When asked about the sponsorship possibilities for sports after unification, Neumann was exasperated. “We’re coming from the Middle Ages here,” says Neumann, adding, “Who is sponsoring a country that’s going down?”
More important, perhaps is the question “who wants to sponsor sports that no one wants to watch?” When it comes to finding sponsors, women’s sports in particular face a bleak future. East German sponsors and television stations have traditionally been interested in a woman athlete’s looks just as much as–if not more than–her athletic performances. Because East German women have often forsaken femininity for medals, sponsors could be reluctant. “Most of the GDR girls were not a sight we’d describe as beautiful,” says Skowronek. “So only from time to time will there be a chance for sponsorships.”