SI Vault
Jack Olsen
July 18, 1966
It was Olympischer Tag, a big event behind The Wall. A cloudburst swamped the stadium, but brooms, gasoline fires and old-fashioned sportsmanship came to the rescue and everything was 'alles in Butter'
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July 18, 1966

A Muddy Day In East Berlin

It was Olympischer Tag, a big event behind The Wall. A cloudburst swamped the stadium, but brooms, gasoline fires and old-fashioned sportsmanship came to the rescue and everything was 'alles in Butter'

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Politics, always politics, iss getting in the way," said the soft-voiced little German with the face of a friendly ferret. "I am interested in the track records of my opponents, not in their politics."

The speaker was J�rgen May, and you may want to make a note of his name. Last winter, running on the grass in New Zealand in one of his rare appearances outside the Iron Curtain, the wiry 145-pounder from Erfurt, near Leipzig, stepped a mile in 3:53.8, which stands as the third fastest mile ever, a mere fifth of a second behind Michel Jazy's world record and only a tenth behind Jim Ryun's time this year at the Compton Relays.

There are those who say that it is J�rgen May, not Jim Ryun—and certainly not the aging Jazy—who will burst through the 3:50 barrier, the next big challenge in the mile. Peter Snell, the truculent New Zealander who quit the battle and saw his once untouchable records dissolve one by one in this golden age of track and field, has said of May: "He is the man most likely to break the barrier of 3:50. It shouldn't be long now. It will take a man who can run a very fast half mile and still have stamina." May is a man who can run a very fast half mile. He holds the world record at 1,000 meters, slightly over half a mile, and he flirts with world marks almost every time he appears in a middle-distance race.

It is no wonder that Snell remembers May well. They met last year in an 800-meter event at Prague, and before the race Snell commented in his usual inimitable way: " J�rgen May? Never heard this name!" May won the race, and within a few weeks reeled off a new German 800-meter mark, a European 1,500-meter record (since regained, by a tenth of a second, by Jazy) and the world record in the 1,000 meters.

But getting to see the brilliant Iron Curtain runner is no simple matter. The same political intrigues that keep him from freely meeting worthy opponents also make it difficult for Western journalists to watch him in action. Although he is widely feared and respected by the Jim Ryuns and the Michel Jazys of the track world, and indeed is their peer in every respect, he is all but unknown to the butcher from Marseille and certainly is unknown to the little old lady from Dubuque. May was invited to race in the U.S., but he was forbidden entry by the U.S. State Department. When he flew to Paris to engage the reluctant Jazy in mortal combat over the metric mile, the Gallic masters of red tape let him sit around the airport at Le Bourget for 12 hours, then told him to run along home. "To make it worse," said the runner, "it was drafty at the airport, and all I took back to Germany for my trouble was a cold." He laughed at the silliness of it all. "It was political pressure from the West Germans that did me in. And not for the first time, either."

Going into East Berlin, one gets a quick dose of the politics that befuddle not only J�rgen May but his counterparts who try to make the journey in the opposite direction. I went through the looking glass with a small delegation of Western journalists en route to cover May's appearance in Olympischer Tag (Olympic Day), a track meet featuring runners and jumpers and throwers from 13 nations, most of them behind the Iron Curtain. A short walk through Checkpoint Charlie and we found ourselves immersed in the drear clich�s of Red Berlin, the glaring contradictions and inconsistencies, the gleaming facades and the shoddy realities. The passport-control officer on the East Berlin side smiled and nodded and performed minor courtesies, while next to him stood another official who made it plain that he viewed every visitor from the outer world as an Alec Leamas slipping through The Wall to undo with diabolical cunning all the good works of the Kosygins and Ulbrichts and Brezhnevs of the kindly Communist world. A few minutes later we were saying, "Alles in Butter," to a customs guard; this is a traditional Berlin greeting that means literally "everything in butter," and freely translates as "Everything's coming up roses." He looked both ways and smiled wryly. "Sometimes yes," he said. "Sometimes no."

Warmed by the glow of this East-West exchange of intimacy, we began to feel as though we were crossing the border between Oregon and Washington, when suddenly there appeared in an unmuffled frenzy a hot little motorbike bearing two Vopos, Volkspolizei, those dedicated youths whose studied coldness personifies the Eastern regime to most Europeans. They zipped along—their heads moving slowly from side to side, submachine guns cradled in their laps, steel helmets shading their eyes, the look of zombies on their faces—and disappeared around a corner marked by a five-story building with the top three floors bombed into skeletal nudity. Said a visiting journalist from Great Britain: "This is a hell of a place for a track meet."

My own mission was almost aborted from the start. Carrying out an earlier promise, I had brought with me copies of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for May and his coach. A customs official huffed that all capitalist periodicals are banned in East Germany and looked at me with vast administrative annoyance.

"It is only a sports magazine," I said with becoming humility.

He opened the magazine brusquely and pointed to a full-page picture of an Early Times bottle. "Ist das Sport?" he said. Before I could answer he turned to another advertisement, this one showing a shaggy dog wearing a fireman's hat. "Ist das Sport?" he said louder.

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