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ASSEMBLY LINE FOR CHAMPIONS
Jerry Kirshenbaum
July 12, 1976
Young athletes in East Germany are taught that to excel in sports is as much duty as fun, the ultimate goal being the top step of the victory platform in the Olympics
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July 12, 1976

Assembly Line For Champions

Young athletes in East Germany are taught that to excel in sports is as much duty as fun, the ultimate goal being the top step of the victory platform in the Olympics

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The line at Checkpoint Charlie was moving at a snail's pace, the chief culprit being an ashen-faced East German border guard inspecting passports in what seemed like slow motion. The guard, stationed at the very end of the bureaucratic gantlet that must be run before entering East Berlin, was unsmiling and, it appeared, utterly uninterested.

The line edged forward until the guard had before him two Americans. He began thumbing through their papers with his usual languor until one sheet caught his eye. It was a letter from Panorama DDR, the East German foreign press agency, and it stated the mission of the two Americans.

"Sport?" the guard asked.

The Americans nodded.

Regarding them with a sly expression, the guard launched into a curious litany. " Roland Matthes, Kornelia Ender, Ruth Fuchs...." All were names of athletes expected to lead East Germany to a smashing showing at the Montreal Olympics. The guard went through a couple of more names before concluding, "Gut, ja?"

"Gut," agreed the Americans.

The guard, beaming now, waved the Americans through.

The German Democratic Republic is a country flexing its muscles in many ways. Behind its sealed-off borders, the Ohio-sized land of 17 million has overcome a continuing labor shortage to become the richest of Eastern Europe's socialist bloc countries. East Germany's prosperity is evident in the vast new apartment buildings with bathroom-tile exteriors that have gone up in its major cities and in the fashionably dressed citizens who crowd its public squares to eat ice cream and sip Pilsner from limp paper cups. It is evident, too, in the little G.D.R.-made Trabants and Soviet Ladas that zip along its avenues, menacing pedestrians just as effectively as the brawnier Mercedes across the border in West Germany.

The G.D.R. is also doing itself proud in sport, having long since overtaken Hungary, Australia, even California as a major athletic power. Until recently, however, the East Germans preferred to keep their well-oiled sports machine under wraps, rejecting most requests for visits by Western sportswriters. Thus it was a welcome development when the G.D.R. authorities, suddenly reversing themselves, invited a dozen journalists from Western Europe, Canada and the U.S. for a pre-Olympic sporting safari through the playing fields and field houses of their country.

To join this tour Photographer Walter Iooss Jr. and I set out, after clearing Checkpoint Charlie, for the Hotel Berolina, a large, modestly appointed building overlooking Berlin's broad and bustling Karl-Marx-Allee. There, tour members were greeted by Panorama DDR officials who outlined a six-day itinerary that included not only Berlin but also the cities of Leipzig and Karl-Marx-Stadt as well as smaller towns along the way. It seemed like a lot of ground to cover in the allotted time, to which objection Peter Herrmann, Panorama's sports editor, rejoined, "Don't worry, we're a small country." That was easy to believe; at the time there were 17 of us, including officials and interpreters, jammed into a second-floor room designed, at most, for one guest.

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