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History's Losers : The Dismantling Of The East German Sports Machine

June 09, 1991|TAMARA JONES | Tamara Jones is a Times correspondent in Bonn, Germany.

FEET POUNDING AGAINST THE TRACK, CHRISTINE Wachtel saw the finish line swim into view and felt the two Romanians close on her heels. She urged herself on, clenching her jaw in fierce determination. Just half a lap to go. The stands shook with the polyglot cheers of 85 nations as Wachtel flew across the white line, flinging her arms victoriously in the air. Pure rapture lit up her face. She had won. Again.

It was only an hour or so later that she strode back into the stadium in Seville, Spain, site of the 1991 World Indoor Track and Field Championships, to take her place on the awards stand. This time, though, Wachtel's face was artfully frozen in the fathomless expression, that perfect blank, mastered by East Germans as small children. It is a look crafted to betray no emotion, draw no attention, offer no challenge, a look necessary in a society so riddled with informants that even church confessionals were bugged.

A gold medal, shiny-new, hung around her neck, and inside the packed stadium, they were hoisting her nation's flag to honor the three-time world champion in the 800-meter run. Christine cradled an armful of roses and picked nervously at her unfamiliar turquoise warm-up suit that told the spectators she was representing the newly unified Germany. She stared vacantly at the red, gold and black banner, once the flag of only West Germany, as she heard the strains of a national anthem that will forever be known by the verse banned after World War II: "Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles."

"It was an empty feeling," Wachtel would later admit. "Everything went so fast, much too fast. You can't grasp hearing one anthem, and six months later hearing a different one."

A year ago, Christine Wachtel, one of the brightest stars on an astonishingly dominant East German women's track team, could not even imagine wearing this uniform or paying respect to this flag or hearing this anthem played in her honor. But between the winning of her second and third gold medals in consecutive world indoor championships, the country Wachtel was born in, grew up in and ran for simply ceased to exist. The Germans call it Einheit . Unity. In history books, it will be recorded as the fairy-tale ending of a 40-year cold war, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the jubilant reunion of East Germany and West Germany.

With the 1992 Olympics looming, it would be logical to assume that united Germany is busily preparing for its debut as a veritable sports monster, powered by Christine Wachtel and all the other young talent inherited from defunct East Germany and its mysterious champion factory. It is easy to imagine sports officials greedily devouring all the secrets of success their old archrivals now must share, and pooling their Teutonic efficiency to build an even bigger Miracle Machine, one that could spew out winners well into the next century and elbow aside the United States and Soviet Union to become the ultimate sport nation.

But standing in a Spanish stadium one day early this spring, wearing a gold medal for united Germany, what Wachtel felt could scarcely be described as unity or jubilance; what she felt was not the energy of a new and powerful machine. What she felt was torn apart.

And, in many ways, what was happening to her--and to the rarefied world of East German sports--reflected what was happening to Germany as a whole during a unification process that had turned out to be far more painful than either side ever imagined. It had to do with the hard edge that exists between winners and losers, and with trying to surmount walls made of something more unyielding than concrete and barbed wire.

In the end, it seems, the story is not at all about Germany building a giant but about Germany destroying one.

NESTLED IN THE RURAL MIDDLE OF WHAT USED TO BE the German Democratic Republic, two country-road hours north of Berlin, the medieval town of Neubrandenburg is an unlikely mecca. But for decades that is how aspiring track-and-field stars have regarded it or, more precisely, the fenced-in Neubrandenburg Sports Club on its outskirts.

The club was one of 25 elite sports-training centers across the small country, where the best athletes were honed into Olympic material. Different clubs specialized in different disciplines, and Neubrandenburg was recognized as one of the top producers of world-class runners and jumpers--participants in all track-and-field events. To be granted admission to a club like Neubrandenburg, was considered a tremendous opportunity. For sport was East Germany's obsession, its glory and, above all, its ticket to the world.

"Sport was a weapon against the west," says Peter Busse, the Interior Ministry official overseeing the athletic merger of east and west. "The entire system was run from above by a Communist central commando, and there was only one goal--to bring East Germany recognition in the world."

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