SWIMNEWS ONLINE: July 1997 Magazine Articles

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General Lag In Performances

Seven Years After Reunification, Germany Is Still At A Loss
For How To Deal With Its Ominous Past


Karin Helmstaedt

MUNICH - Germany's well-worn veterans walked onto the deck of the Munich Olympic pool with seemingly little to worry about. The German National Championships (July 3-6), one in a long series of events celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1972 Olympic Park, were characterized by a climate of latent uneasiness, passed off as frustration over the alarming lack of new talent.

With court proceedings against former GDR swim coaches, sport doctors, and administrators suspected of involvement in doping opening sometime in late summer or early fall, the atmosphere on deck was tense, wary, and sometimes downright hostile. And things didn't get any better as former East German swimmers walked away with 21 out of 32 national titles, making up the greater portion of the team bound for the European Championships in Sevilla.

Most of those potentially involved in the upcoming Berlin indictments refused to comment at all, and the faces of Dieter Lindemann, Volker Frischke, and Lutz Wanja, all prominent former East German coaches, were grim testaments to their collective vow of silence. One coach did make the resigned observation, "It's going to be ugly. And when it's all over, we can start over."

Rźdiger Tretow, President of the German Swimming Federation (DSV), admitted that the DSV is in a difficult position "in the absence of concrete proof" against former GDR coaches. In 1991, in order to travel to the world championships in Perth, coaches like Lindemann and Frischke gave written affidavits under oath that they had nothing to do with doping.

"Those affidavits still stand," Tretow said, adding that once the coaches in question are accused in court, the DSV will take immediate action: coaches who are charged and fined will be suspended, and those who are sentenced will lose their jobs. "We can't act on mere suppositions," he said, "even though we know they didn't write the truth."

An interesting point concerns coaches who were informers for the former Secret Police; the DSV needs the consent of the coaches themselves to confirm each case, but of course no one has consented to the DSV accessing this information and the necessary files remain mysterious. The coaches' contracts with the DSV state that they should have no connection whatsoever to either doping or the Secret Police, and this information will surely be revealed in court. "This is a problem for us," Tretow said, squirming with discomfort, "and I'm not sure how we will react. It would certainly be very unlucky if something happened before Sevilla."

The first day of competition did have some surprises however, as three favoured veterans were toppled from their pedestals. With Franziska van Almsick injured and out of commission, sprint "Kšnigin" Sandra Všlker of Hamburg had the stage to herself. The day before the competition she appeared in the Hamburg edition of Die Bildzeitung as a nearly topless mermaid, and her face smiled back from countless posters around the pool promoting a new freestyle video done with British sprinter Mark Foster.

Ranked number one in the world in the 50 and 100 freestyles, it was a definite shock when she was upstaged by 18-year-old Antje Buschschulte, a former West German training in Magdeburg with Bernd Henneberg. "The win came as a total surprise," Buschschulte said, "because my training was more focussed on the 200 freestyle. The time (55.35) is unbelievable ... and I think my chances are good over the other distances."

A disappointed Všlker said, "I simply swam badly and had absolutely no feel for my speed. I'm not tired at all and I even noticed in the final metres that I had something left."

World leader Jens Kruppa, 1:01.90 for 100 breaststroke.
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Mark Warnecke, the favourite for the 100 breaststroke, was knocked off by Jens Kruppa of Leipzig, who posted the fastest time in the world this year (1:01.91).

No men made the 50.30 second cut-off for Sevilla in the 100 freestyle, and mighty Munich native Christian Tršger was sidelined (to fourth) by Torsten Spanneberg, who touched first in 50.72. Head men's coach Manfred Thiesmann was at a loss to explain individual performances, but suggested that the lack of a star on the team to act as a positive example of success was hindering the team's development.

As Michael Jackson warmed up in the stadium next door on Day 2, the 23-year-old Všlker took her revenge in a showdown with Buschschulte in the 100 backstroke. "The race was a nerve game today and was much more difficult than yesterday. I went out faster and had the race from the outset," said the satisfied Všlker, who held off her rival by 3/10 seconds (1:02.2 to 1:02.56). Despite a slow start, Všlker's second victory in the 50 freestyle was clocked in 25.32.

Kerstin Kielgass won 200 and 400 free.
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Van Almsick, who was in Munich as a spectator, was miffed at having to watch the 200 freestyle from the sideline (again!), but while the winner of the event was eight years her senior, she was certainly no slouch: ex-WundermŠdchen and defending European champion Kerstin Kielgass, 27, posted 1:59.78. Only Costa Rica's Claudia Poll has been faster this year. Kielgass also won the 400 freestyle ahead of Dagmar Hase, whose "comeback" at 27 was confirmed with her qualification for Sevilla.

Other double winners were Ralf Braun (100 and 200 back), Buschschulte (100 free, 200 back), Kruppa (100 and 200 breast), and Christian Keller (100 fly, 200 IM). Despite a knee injury, 27-year-old Jšrg Hoffmann was unchallenged in the 400 and 1500 freestyles. No changing of the guard in sight.

In a press conference, Van Almsick sported her trademark Calvin Klein baseball cap - supposedly to make her less conspicuous - and a custom-made wrist brace that has allowed her to start arm training again. She expressed her "shock" at the state of the German swim scene, saying, "The same ones are winning with no pressure from below...there are huge holes and no one seems to be coming up from the younger ranks."

A look at the results confirms her observation: newcomer Anne Poleska, 17, won the 200 breaststroke in 2:32.17, hardly scintillating compared with Silke Hšrner's juiced up national record of 2:26.71. Ina Hźging was a surprise win in the 100 breaststroke, but her time of 1:10.98 did not even make the qualifying time for Sevilla. She was an automatic selection for the medley relay however, along with her runner-up, Sylvia Gerasch (1:11.12), another name that's been kicking around for over a decade.

Journalists grilled national head coaches Thiesmann (men) and Achim Jedamsky (women), and Team Chef Winfried Leopold on the general lag in performances. In four days, not a single national record was set. Many of the winning times were hopelessly far from the now unified German records. When asked before the meet about her record-setting potential, Všlker replied, "It's hard to talk about records because there are so many records still held by former GDR swimmers." It was a refreshingly frank comment in the midst of so much deliberate looking away.

Leopold, himself visibly burdened with a long past in the GDR, spoke unconvincingly of the "flux" in German swimming today, saying that it is difficult for the athletes to train effectively, in a completely concentrated and ordered setting. Alas, seven years after reunification, Germany is still at a loss for how to deal with its ominous past. Gone are the days of the sub-8 minute 4x200 freestyle relay. The most effective system ever conceived, which allowed the GDR to systemtically "fix" swimming success, was exposed long ago for what it really was. But by not facing mistakes immediately and letting so many lies linger, the whole German team is on increasingly shifty ground, unable to fit comfortably into the unified persona.

When, on the last day, a journalist in Munich smirked, "No dope, no hope," it was a telling reflection of a collective loss of respect and confidence that has affected an entire nation's identity.

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