As Wall Tumbles, Athletes Stumble
SPORTS: EAST GERMANY
KLAUS AMPLER looks out from the infield as a pack of cyclists in tight formation hurdles around a sharply-angled wooden track. The trainer from Leipzig was watching the opening event of another winter indoor cycling season, but he was also seeing the beginnings of change in East Germany's world-renowned sports program. Athletes in the arena talked excitedly about more meets with foreign clubs. The field of cyclists already included members of a team from West Berlin. For the top bicyclists there was now the chance that they might soon be able to sign contracts with Western teams and race internationally as professionals.
``For me, in the '60s, it was not possible,'' said Mr. Ampler with a shrug. The 1964 East German cycling champion is matter-of-fact when describing the former political realities that kept him from competing in many Western bicycle races. If he is bitter, his broadly smiling face doesn't show it. For the young athletes he is coaching, and especially for his son Uwe, winner of the world cycling championship in 1986, the future is full of new possibilities.
The changes sweeping through the political establishment of East Germany are also having an effect on the country's sports system. Past methods are being questioned, corruption and hypocrisy have been exposed. The state's single-minded devotion of money and training facilities to only those athletes and sports that produced Olympic medals is now opening up to ideas that will make sports more available to average citizens.
Controlling the finances and coordinating the activities of nearly all sports clubs in East Germany is the German Sports and Gymnastics Union (DTSB). The organization has been very good at what government leaders designed it for, namely: to win lots of medals. Since 1949, East German athletes have won 313 gold, 192 silver, and 177 bronze medals in Olympic competitions. Oonly the Soviet Union and the United States have won more Olympic medals, an impressive record for a country slightly smaller in size and population than New York state.
``It was a very hard, but very effective system,'' says DTSB spokesman Bernd Stade.
The program concentrated its resources and coaching talent on only the promising few. Athletes were screened at young ages according to precise growth charts and body types. Training regimens were notoriously rugged. Athletes who failed to win were quickly dropped. For the top stars, there was the chance to travel abroad, big apartments, cars, and cash bonuses. These were meager rewards by Western standards, but still far more than the average East German citizen could hope for.
In November, East German newspapers began printing articles critical of the DTSB. Privileges enjoyed by well-known athletes were publicized. The use of performance-enhancing drugs was reported. The government started an investigation into how the nation's estimated annual sports budget of $600 million was being spent. Financial irregularities were uncovered as well as unexplained piles of hard currency.
``For years, only the good side was shown,'' says Mr. Stade of the DTSB, ``and now suddenly the problems are being seen.'' He rejects the idea that the public now detests its former heroes. He went on: ``We need to build a better perspective about sports,'' meaning public attitudes - soured by the media reports - as well as the athletes' expectations.
Prime Minister Hans Modrow told athletes in Potsdam last month that sports would retain their respected place in East Germany. But, he added, the deeper values of sports had suffered in the pursuit of medals and prestige. In the future, much more emphasis would be placed on sports for all, he said. To that end, the government has begun a program to build 1,500 tennis courts. The tennis boom next door in West Germany - largely sparked by the success of Boris Becker and Steffi Grafchk - may take hold in the East, too.
As for how the new programs will be financed, officials see new options.
For amateur groups, decentralization may mean less money in the short run. Experts predict that new, local initiatives for both money and equipment will ensure that the public keeps the programs it wants. For more elite sports, funding will also change.
``A healthy commercialism will be needed,'' says Stade. Proven programs should have little trouble attracting Western sponsors. A new government agency - Sports Agentur - was formed late last month. Its role will be to mediate contracts for those East German athletes who wish to play for Western teams.
All the changes will not necessarily mean an end to the near-continuous playing of the East German national anthem at the Olympics.
The changes may mean fewer Olympic medals and lower morale for East German athletes, says Willi Knecht, head of the West German Sports Information Service, but with their training and coaches, ``they will still be near the top.''