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William Oscar Johnson
November 27, 1989
Behind their newly breached wall, East Germany's wondrous athletes relish their greatest prize, freedom
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November 27, 1989

Out Of The Shadows

Behind their newly breached wall, East Germany's wondrous athletes relish their greatest prize, freedom

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On Nov. 10, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall effectively fell, Kristin Otto wrote these words in the diary she has kept for more than nine years: "A day which will become history because it is the coronation of all that has gone before. As of today, the borders are open. All hell has broken loose at the visa offices and the banks. Everybody wants to seize this moment because all have been waiting for it for so very long, the moment when they are at last free to travel."

To make the great date stand out from her less cosmic entries, Otto highlighted it with brightly colored markers—just as she had her entry of Sept. 25, 1988, when she won her historic sixth gold medal in swimming at the Seoul Olympics. Then she hurried to her parents' home not far from her own in Leipzig, to discuss what might be called East Germany's version of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Like almost everything else that has been happening in Eastern Europe during this unforgettable season of falling walls and rising hopes, events in the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.) have taken the world—including, most especially, the 16.7 million East Germans who have spent their lives sealed inside their bleak homeland—by complete surprise.

The biggest question posed by the changes, and one that is unlikely to be answered in the near future, is that of the unification of the two Germanies. West Germans last week sounded hopeful, perhaps even optimistic, about the possibility. But in the East, the idea was not popular. Otto, 23 and freshly retired from her sport, the owner of a Peugeot and comfortably ensconced in a new, stylishly furnished three-room apartment in the center of Leipzig, was nevertheless typical of her less-privileged countrymen. She said, "This is not a subject of discussion at all because we are two sovereign states. That cannot change. I believe we cannot do without help from other countries, and we must accept that help. But our situation now calls for us to put everything in proper order."

Of course, the old order in East Germany was a surreal one, dependent for its survival on the cold war, that global stalemate in which warring powers never really went to war. The battles were fought on stranger fields. The G.D.R. has for years had the highest standard of living among the Soviet satellites, but most of the world was more impressed with the fact that it also possessed the most efficient system ever known for producing athletes who could win medals in the Olympic Games. Sports medals became as much a symbol of what the G.D.R. stood for as anything.

Now that the cold war appears to be ending, another logical question has arisen: Can the East German sports machine keep humming in the face of liberalization? Michael H�bner, the former world sprint cycling champion who lives in Karl-Marx-Stadt, said last week, "Money is lying in the streets. All you have to do is pick it up." H�bner's remark referred to the riches western athletes can derive from their performances, and raised the question of how the East Germans will function in their new world. Can they succeed as before, without the tensions of the cold war to keep their athletes on edge? Can they continue to motivate men and women who no longer will be turned on merely by the prospect of a rare trip out of their nation-prison? Will the money in foreign streets cause East German athletes to emigrate? The answers lie buried in uncertainty, but for the moment, at least. East German athletes seem euphoric about the possibilities.

For the G.D.R.'s platoons of Olympic superstars, occasional travel beyond the Wall had always been an assumed privilege; yet they, too, rejoiced at the reality that others could now join them in the wicked capitalist West. Katarina Witt, 23, the retired ice queen of figure skating, was busy shooting a film in Spain called Carmen on Ice, in which she plays guess who. She said, "Every normal worker in the G.D.R. should have the possibility at least once in his lifetime to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris. We have accomplished much in 40 years in the G.D.R., but there have been many things we cannot agree with, and the limits on travel were one of them.... My parents never saw me compete in a world or Olympic championship outside the G.D.R. until my last world championship in Budapest, after the Calgary Olympics in 1988."

Otto said in Leipzig last week, "I am very moved by this, but certainly not as much as people who have never been in the West. My sister Irina is 29 years old, and she made her first visit to West Berlin with her husband and small daughter the day after restrictions were lifted. Their lives will never be the same."

Even well-traveled East German athletes were dazzled by the thought of previously impossible opportunities that a permanently open East Germany will offer them. Ulf Timmermann, the world-record holder and 1988 Olympic gold medalist in the shot put, said in East Berlin, "These events affect us as much as anyone else, because we will have new freedom too. I would like to enter more international events than I have been allowed to in the past, and I will now have a chance to add my opinion to any discussions about that subject. It is an amazing fact, but we are now allowed to travel without official permission or supervision. The day after the border was opened, I actually drove my wife to the West Berlin airport and we flew to Frankfurt so I could appear on television.

"It was her first time in a Western country. Until now, even official team trips have been cut as short as possible. Now, I can go to Zurich for a meet, bring my wife and stay on for a little Swiss vacation afterward. Everything is now possible."

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