Katarina Witt's rise to stardom depicted in documentary
NEW YORK -- Katarina Witt knows times have changed at her home in Berlin, but she was reminded again while planning her recent trip to America the Tribeca Film Festival.
"Jumping on an airplane, coming to America, filling it out on the Internet -- it's so easy [now]," Witt said. "In the past, it was tough. When did I have a passport in my own hands? Only when you go to a competition, the authorities would give it you. You come back home, they take it right away so you couldn't travel on your free spirit. ... There were a lot of obstacles around."
These obstacles are outlined in the documentary The Diplomat, which chronicles Witt's rise to becoming one of the East Germany's most successful athletes at the height of the Cold War. The film debuted at the festival April 20 as part of ESPN's Nine for IX series, and the 50-minute documentary will air Aug. 6 on ESPN.
The tease summarizes it accurately: "The world was watching. So was the government." The film begins in 1961, four years before Witt's birth, the year the Berlin Wall rose. It runs through her upbringing in the East German foothills city of Karl-Marx-Stadt (since renamed), her 1984 and '88 Olympic triumphs and the fall of the wall Nov. 9, 1989.
It's everything you've come to expect from ESPN's 30 for 30 series, featuring several scenes at the rink Witt learned to skate; interviews with fellow East German skaters, East German officials and friend Brian Boitano; and old, grainy interviews and skating footage.
"The smart, well-spoken, gorgeous face of East German socialism," one voiceover said.
Male pairs skater Ingo Steuer, another member of the East Germany team at the time, remembered being told to sign papers that led to him reporting Witt to the Stasi, the nation's secret police. The Stasi kept a file on Witt codenamed "Flop," bugged her apartment and assigned people to follow her.
"No bitterness," Witt says now. "Nobody hurt me."
Witt's worldwide popularity was booming going into the 1988 Olympics. There she was under pressure not just competitively -- against American Debi Thomas -- but also knowing that she would be allowed to skate professionally in shows outside East Germany, if and only if she won gold.
"You're second, and you stay home," Witt said. "Who knew that the wall would come down ... that it would all work out anyway. But at that moment nobody knew."
She defended her Olympic title in Calgary, allowing her to go on tour with Boitano and others. Footage showed her in Seville, Spain, in 1989 when demonstrations in Leipzig helped lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
East Germany "laid the ground for my dreams," Witt said. "So I always will be thankful."
In 1994, Witt bid farewell to the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Her free skate was a tribute to war-torn Sarajevo, site of her Olympic debut in 1984 at age 18. She later made a cameo appearance in "Jerry Maguire" and posed nude for Playboy in one of its most famous issues. And even at age 47, she still receives the Playboy among her fan mail. When asked about it, she smiles and lets out a laugh. Yes, she gladly signs the cover and returns it.
She recently starred in a German prime-time TV movie about a figure skater who develops a stalker, as Witt had experienced. She has her own website and is on Twitter. She has some 13,000 followers and follows 19 accounts, including that of Canadian singer Bryan Adams.
Witt led the committee for Munich's bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, which lost to Pyeongchang, South Korea, a bid boosted by reigning Olympic figure skating champion Yuna Kim. Witt said she saw Kim twice during the 2018 bid process and watched coverage of her winning the world title in London, Ontario, in March. Their names will be linked more and more over the next 10 months. If Kim defends her Olympic title, she'll join Witt and Norwegian pixie Sonja Henie (1928, '32, '36) as the only multiple gold medalists. Witt is pulling for Kim.
"[Kim] is an incredible figure skater," Witt said. "She's beautiful. She's very athletic. She puts her heart into it. She's been over the years such a great spokesperson for the sport as well. ... Maybe I"ll be there watching it while she follows in my footsteps."
Witt's pleased with her own staying power, marveling that her 1988 Olympic free skate -- the famous "Carmen" performance (and dress) -- has more than one million YouTube views over various uploads.
"There's a whole new generation who's following the skating now," she said. "They want to know what was in the past."