The 19-year-old man had spent a week watching the guards, learning their routine, as they patrolled the beach on the Baltic seaside resort of Boltenhagen.
The area was known by the East German secret police, the Stasi, as a favoured spot from which to escape to the West. He knew that each hour the guards had to switch off their spotlights for a few minutes to allow the lights to cool down.
The young man, Axel Mitbauer, a champion swimmer and member of the East German national swimming team, had already suffered at the hands of the Stasi. Known for his fraternisation with West Germans, he had been locked-up in solitary confinement for seven weeks, deprived of light and beaten up. But Mitbauer was made of strong stuff. On the night of 17 August 1969, he made his move.
When the right moment came, Mitbauer, smeared with 30 tubes of Vaseline against the cold water, slipped into the icy Baltic. Once the spotlights returned, he swam underwater. Using the stars as his guide, he swam 15 miles until, after four hours, he reached a lifebuoy and climbed aboard to rest. Six hours later, at 7 am the following morning, he was picked up by a West German ship. He’d made it.
It was the crowning moment of her career. Ahead of them lay the Los Angeles Olympics and the chance for further glory. But Geipel fell in love with a Mexican athlete, a walker, and dreamt of living in the West. She soon came to the attention of the Stasi and back in East Germany was made to undergo an operation to remove her appendix. There, they took the opportunity to mutilate her stomach, thus destroying her career and her dreams and leaving her with debilitating stomach cramps.
Twenty years later, Geipel, whose own father had worked for the Stasi, renounced her world record, citing that it had been gained under the influence of drugs.
The ‘Tracksuit Traitors’
These are two of the dramas related in an amazing new exhibition at the German Historical Institute in London, ‘Tracksuit Traitors’. It tells the story of 15 elite East German athletes, cyclists, swimmers and footballers who made a dash for freedom. In a series of videos, the athletes tell their own story, of their successes and pressures in East Germany, their escape and consequent life in the West. Now middle-aged, some portly, these men and women took advantage of representing their country abroad to risk everything and defect.
Germany had been split into East and West in 1949, yet until 1964, the two nations were represented at the Olympics as one team, the ‘Unified Team of Germany’. It was only from the Mexico City Summer Olympics of 1968, did the two Germanys appear as separate entities.
The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) saw the propaganda opportunity that sport, particularly the Olympics, could provide them. In 1968, the East Germans won nine gold medals; just 20 years later, at the Seoul Olympics of 1988, they won an astonishing 37. Within those two decades, the East German Summer and Winter Olympic teams won 587 medals, 203 of them gold, which for a country of less than 16 million was, on paper at least, a spectacular achievement. In the Summer Olympics of 1976, 1980 and 1988, East Germany notched up second position on the medals’ table.
For the East German state, sport was not simply a matter of a bit of patriotic pride but firm proof of the superiority of the socialist state; sport was nothing less than a political weapon. Other nations of the Eastern Bloc followed suite, the USSR, Romania, Yugoslavia, etc, but no one took it as seriously as the East Germans.
The reason was the inbuilt rivalry with their neighbours and co-nationalists, the West Germans (and we all know that feeling of wanting to beat the Germans). West Germany seemed to be winning the Cold War and was doing better economically and materially, but here was the one sphere in which the East Germans felt it could win. And where better to prove the superiority of socialism than on the biggest sporting stage of them all – the Olympics?
The success of East German sportsmen and women was no accident – the state went to great lengths to achieve such astonishing feats, funding and prioritising sport clubs and training facilities, and taking under their wing, from the earliest age, the sporting stars of tomorrow.
The state focussed on individual sports, particularly swimming and weightlifting, rather than team sports, purely on an economical basis – a whole team uses up a lot of resources yet can only win the one medal between them.
Potential youngsters were targeted and put through years of intense training to the exclusion of almost everything else. To be talented in East Germany meant giving up your childhood. Those that won something were rewarded by even greater pressure to maintain their winning ways, becoming boarders at their training grounds, rarely allowed to see friends or family, and deprived of time off, even to celebrate birthdays or family occasions.
But it wasn’t just intense physical training these youngsters had to endure but also ideological training, groomed to go abroad, spout the party line and talk animatedly of the socialist utopia they lived in while deploring the ways of the capitalist, imperialist West. For these youngsters were more than just sports stars – they were the country’s ‘tracksuit diplomats’, ambassadors for their nation, models for socialism.
But there was an inherent risk for the state – performing abroad meant that the athletes came into direct contact with Westerners and could fall prey to capitalist indoctrination. They also had the means to escape, and as this exhibition illustrates – many did. From tracksuit diplomats they became tracksuit traitors. These players became forgotten people within East Germany; their names erased from the sporting history books and their faces blanked out of photographs.
But success didn’t just come through intensive investment and training – it came in the form of a little blue pill – vitamin tablets, or so the athletes were told, even the youngest ones, to help stave off colds and keep you fit. The youngsters, trusting of their coaches, took them. The pills were of course steroids, Oral-Turinabol. There was no parental consent involved; indeed the youngsters were under strict instruction not to tell anyone they were taking them, let alone their parents. Then came the injections. Refusal was not an option.
When young girls started to grow facial hair and stop menstruating, and boys grew breasts and found their testes shrinking, parents who did question the coaches were threatened and told in no uncertain terms to desist. Many of these young girls, whose voices had become so deep, were prohibited from talking to foreign journalists. An estimated 10,000 East German athletes were doped.
Their foreign rivals watched with astonishment as an hitherto unheard of East German with an unnaturally-shaped body came along and wiped the board with them, not just winning but winning by huge margins. No amount of training could compete with these superhuman athletes. The work and dreams of dedicated and decent athletes were shattered by a nation so intent on cheating.
Among the extreme cases was that of Heidi Krieger (pictured) who won the shot put gold at the 1986 European Athletics Championships. Krieger had been fed so many pills, she suffered a serious gender imbalance to the point that, in 1997, she underwent sex reassignment surgery and changed her name to Andreas. In 1986, with the help of steroids, she could throw a shot put over 21 metres. Now, as a man in his mid-40s, he can tolerate only the mildest exertion. But for Krieger, he’s content with his new identity, has found love and is comfortable with his past.
Not so fortunate was 16-year-old, Joerg Sievers. A potential Olympic swimmer, on 17 January 1973, Sievers was found drowned at the bottom of a swimming pool in his hometown of Magdeburg. His grieving parents were told he had been swimming while ill with influenza. But they had seen their son just hours before and he wasn’t ill and, furthermore, the boy had, only a few weeks before, been given a flu vaccination. Their request to see the autopsy report was denied. If they had, they would have seen that their poor son had suffered from an enlarged heart, damage to his liver and an infection of the spleen – all brought on as a direct consequence of state-authorized doping.
The Tracksuit Traitors exhibition relates the story of Renate Vogel, a swimmer much feted by the regime. During the 1972 Munich Olympics she was part of the 4×100 metre relay team that won silver and, a year later, she won two golds at the inaugural World Swimming Championships in Belgrade, where the East German women swept the board, winning ten gold medals in fourteen events.
But, in 1974, in the European Swimming Championships, despite being the favourite to win, she won silver, losing out to a West German rival. It wasn’t good enough for the authorities back home and she was severely criticised and ostracised. She realised that she had been used as a political weapon and with the realisation came the determination to defect. In September 1979, under an assumed name, Vogel boarded a plane from Budapest to Munich and fled to freedom.
Falko Götz, a footballer, took the opportunity of an away match in Belgrade in 1983 to seek asylum in the West German embassy. As a consequence, his mother, back home, was interrogated by the Stasi for 16 consecutive hours; everywhere she went she was followed – not at a discreet distance but right behind. His family lost their jobs and were publicly shunned.
But Götz had no regrets and went on to win the UEFA Cup in 1988 with his new West German team, Bayer Leverkusen. But life in the West did not mean he, or others, had escaped the clutches of the Stasi (indeed, he later found out that the Stasi had, within their files, photographs of his new home in West Germany). Cases of defectors drugged and smuggled back East, although rare, were not unheard of. A friend of Götz in West Germany, a fellow East German, was killed in a car accident. Götz, suspecting it was no accident, feared for his own life.
Returning East after unification Götz read through his Stasi files, a process that took three whole days, to discover that while playing in the East, the secret police were kept informed of his movements and conversations by a number of informants which, to his horror, included several former teammates and even family acquaintances.
East v West at the World Cup
While in athletics, the East Germans were dominant, in football the West Germans were easily favourites. Yet their first round match during the 1974 FIFA World Cup finals was one of the most politically-charged sporting clashes of the Cold War. East Germany were surprise winners, beating their Western cousins 1-0, providing further proof that when it came to sport, socialism always triumphed. (Ultimately, however, East Germany was knocked out of the competition and West Germany, playing on home soil, went on to lift the trophy).
The goalscorer, Jürgen Sparwasser (pictured), later wrote, ‘Rumour had it I was richly rewarded for the goal, with a car, a house and a cash premium. But that is not true’. In 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sparwasser defected to the West – another tracksuit traitor.
For many of East Germany’s athletes, experimented upon like human guinea pigs, years of doping have left them with a catalogue of health issues: infertility, cancer, diabetes, organ failure, heart disease and depression are some of the extreme but sadly not uncommon legacies still suffered by these pawns in East Germany’s political game.
Those deemed responsible got their justice – of sorts. In an infamous case in Germany in 2000, several were found guilty of knowingly causing harm to persons, including minors. They suffered only minor fines and suspended sentences, leaving many of their victims further embittered.
The fifteen sportsmen and women in this exhibition were among the lucky ones. They escaped and now, on the eve of the 2012 Olympics, are here to tell their tale. And what a tale it is.
‘Tracksuit Traitors’, video installations put together by the Mexican artist Laura Soria, runs at the German Historical Institute, 17 Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2NJ until 12 August 2012. http://www.ghil.ac.uk and http://zov-sportverraeter.de/en/
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.