East German ice skater Katarina Witt was arguably the best skater in the world in the 1980s, earning gold medals in both the 1984 and 1988 Olympic games. Graceful, smart, confident and articulate, for many she was the face of East German socialism. One Western headline dubbed her, “The Shining Star of the GDR.” (“German Democratic Republic” – the official name of East Germany.)
During the Cold War years, two mutually exclusive political systems stood at an impasse for decades. One venue for proving superiority on the world stage had been sports, and for that reason, East Germany, geographically miniscule compared to the Soviet Union and China, devoted maximum resources to athletics. With Katarina, they scored gold.
The Diplomat, the sixth film in ESPN Films’s Nine for IX Series, will premiere on Tuesday, August 6th at 8pm, ET, on ESPN. The Diplomat – so named because it was said that East German athletes “were raised to be diplomats in track suits” – examines the rise of Katarina’s skating career against the socio-political backdrop of the fall of Communism. Katarina loved to skate; she loved the competitive challenge and the art of performing. And the prospect of being able to travel, to see parts of the world others weren’t allowed to see, was an incentive to train hard.
Ironically, her success may have played a small role in the massive upheaval that would soon sweep East Germany toward the Communist dustbin of history. After the 1988 Olympics, Katarina was allowed to travel outside East Germany to perform in Carmen on Ice. Never before had an East German athlete been granted permission to even perform as a professional, let alone in a Western nation in pursuit of a capitalist enterprise. The news appeared in West German papers and soon, made its way into East Germany.
In October, 1989, tens of thousands of fed up East Germans took to the streets in Leipzig, sometimes defying cold rain, demanding freedom – free elections, free speech, and freedom to travel. Katarina watched it all on the news from her hotel room in Seville, Spain.
Sadly, but hardly surprisingly, as this innate spirit of freedom awakened from its 40-year slumber, along with it came a surge of pent-up anger and hostility. Whereas the average East German might wait fourteen years for a car, which probably wouldn’t even have been a very good one, Katarina had a sleek sports car, a penthouse apartment, and a country retreat. It was typical of Socialist/Communist modus operandi. Those who serve the interests of the rulers share in the spoils of the rule. The useless get nothing.
With this turn of events, Katarina went from celebrity to persona non grata almost overnight. But there was more disillusionment to come. In January, 1990, East Germans stormed Stasi Headquarters, where the East German Secret Police archives were held. Three thousand people applied to see their own files in the first 24 hours. Katarina was shocked to discover that the Stasi had been watching her since she was seven years old. Her file consisted of 27 boxes containing 3,500 pages of surveillance information. Worse, trusted personal friends had signed papers, albeit under threat of imprisonment, to become what the Stasi called “unofficial co-workers,” otherwise known as informants. This too is part and parcel to Communist rule.
To her credit, Katarina speaks as graciously today as she moved across ice then. She says she will always be thankful for the State’s support in helping her pursue her skating dreams, and expresses no bitterness toward Stasi informants. She acknowledges that it may well have been what they had to do “to survive. It’s their story. You have to let go, and you have to close the chapter to be free again.”
She would know. The Diplomat is worth watching for the beauty of Katarina Witt and her skating alone. But as socio-political autopsy, it’s pure gold. Born in Europe, the political offspring of a German in fact, East German Communism barely survived 40 years before it gasped and collapsed into so much Berlin Wall rubble.
Westerners would do well to take note and learn from this diplomat.