- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
For the first 20 of her nearly 22 years, Katrin Krabbe led a quiet enough existence in Neubrandenburg, a sleepy city of 85,000 in the middle of what used to be the German Democratic Republic. Oh, members of her family might have guessed that she had a sprinter's spirit, for as a toddler she had to be attached to a leash when her grandmother took her about town on errands, lest she impetuously dash off on her own. But nothing else much distinguished her. And the state encouraged ordinariness, delivering from the numbing sameness of everyday life only those with the potential to deliver extraordinary athletic performances. Krabbe, who moved into a dormitory at the Neubrandenburg Sports Club school at age 13, was thought capable of such achievements, though no more so than many other young people weaned on sport in East Germany's constellation of specialized clubs and schools.
Krabbe has seen her life change every bit as precipitously as has her country over the past two years, during which the Berlin Wall has come down and East and West Germany have come together. With her long legs, high cheekbones and riveting smile, she has become a poster girl, figuratively and literally, for the new Germany and its untidy transition from antagonistic parts to tentative whole. She chose as her coming-out party the final occasion on which East Germany competed as an independent nation, the August 1990 European Track & Field Championships in Split, Yugoslavia, where she won gold medals in the 100 meters, the 200 and the 4 X 100 relay. A year later, at the World Championships in Tokyo, she ended a season of uneven performances by beating the world's No. 1 women's sprinter, Merlene Ottey of Jamaica, to win golds in the 100 and 200 and bronze in the 4 X 100 and 4 X 400 relays. In the process, Krabbe upheld the hoary East German sports tradition of peaking at the biggest events. In another respect, however, she has developed an entirely new knack. "She hit her peak performances," says her father, Klaus-Peter, "at just the right moment to capitalize on them."
That's capitalize as in capitalism. To the party functionaries and sports bureaucrats in East Germany, Krabbe was given those long legs to turn in world-class times. To the marketing and media executives in the West, however, they're part of a package that can sell products. She pushes Taifun, a line of German sportswear for women, and Goldwell, a brand of German hair-care products. She has an exclusive deal with Bild, the Hamburg-based tabloid, to share her innermost thoughts. "She's a great vehicle," says Ian Campbell, director of international sports marketing for Nike, which supplies the tires for what is rapidly gaining a worldwide reputation as the best set of wheels in track. In 1991, Krabbe, once indentured to the Marxist state and required to turn over all her winnings to the East German sports federation, will make about $200,000 from running and three times that in additional income.
"She's the new sports hero for the united Germany," says her Dutch manager, Jos Hermens. "Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, they are the old German heroes. As a party member, [Olympic medalist sprinter and long jumper] Heike Drechsler [box, page 88] is associated with the old G.D.R. Katrin came at just the right time."
Hermens also represents two other female track stars who ran for East Germany, 400-meter runner Grit Breuer and 800 specialist Sigrun Wodars Grau. Like Krabbe, Breuer was ranked No. 2 in the world in her event by Track & Field News before Tokyo; Grau had won the gold in Seoul in 1988. Yet even as Krabbe trailed Ottey in the rankings, sponsors didn't care. "I bring up Grit or Sigrun, and companies aren't really interested," Hermens says. "It's just Katrin, Katrin, Katrin. It's incredible and frankly frustrating sometimes. It doesn't matter if she loses, as long as she's in the picture."
Breuer, only 19, is dark and engaging, but she just doesn't conform to the West's notion of Teutonic womanhood. "Krabbe is a classic example of how a star is made," says Volker Kluge, sports editor of Junge Welt, one of the old East German dailies making a go of it under the new order. "The horny old men who make marketing decisions saw her in Split, saw that she was blonde, German and had long legs, and said, 'We'll make her a star,' simply because that's what they imagine a star should look like."
Yet Krabbe has been as much a victim of her timing as a beneficiary of it. Each day the mail brings its own evidence of the mixed blessings of reunification. There is the usual stack of fan letters and autograph requests from love-struck boys and admiring girls who congratulate her for beating out Graf in the balloting for Germany's 1990 Female Athlete of the Year. But there are angry letters too, mostly from citizens of eastern Germany, where alienation is commonplace amid a population accustomed to the abiding support of the state and where more than a million people are still jobless.
Elfi Krabbe scrupulously answers all the letters that her daughter receives, even those from down-and-out or jealous correspondents whom she tries to assuage with sympathy and goodwill. But the Krabbes have been shaken by two written threats, including one that promised to blow up the new sporting-goods store Katrin and her live-in boyfriend, world-class kayaker Torsten Krentz, have opened in Neubrandenburg. Katrin grits her teeth. "You live with it," she says. "It's not pleasant for the family. But there are so many beautiful things happening that you learn to take the rest."
Katrin's father spent years trying to prevail upon the authorities to install a telephone in his home. Today he's grateful that when he finally got one, he decided to keep the number unlisted.
Die Wende, which means "the change or turnabout," is the deceptively innocuous-sounding phrase Germans use to refer to the upheaval with which they are struggling. Shortly after the Wall fell, former West German chancellor Willy Brandt declared with grandeur, "What belongs together can now grow together." But the inclination of nature is toward entropy or disintegration: The erstwhile Soviet Republics, for instance, shouldn't have too difficult a time adapting athletically as the U.S.S.R. falls apart. The three Baltic republics will break cleanly from mother Russia and field their own Olympic teams, as may some of the other newly independent Soviet states, although coaches and athletes there show little enthusiasm for spending the effort and money to become relatively minor players on the Olympic stage. Coming suddenly together, on the other hand, seems to go against nature. And in sports as elsewhere, East and West Germany have thus far proved to be a poor fit.