Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Olympics: East Germans risked all to break free of Iron Curtain

Axel Mitbauer. Photo / Supplied
Axel Mitbauer. Photo / Supplied

He ate two fried chickens, smothered himself in 30 tubes of Vaseline and swam 25 kilometres across the Baltic Sea to freedom.

Axel Mitbauer's escape from East Germany is an illustration of what can happen when Olympic ideals are twisted into dark, damaging political ideology masquerading as sport.

Behind the glossy, airbrushed image of the London Olympics is an exhibition - Tracksuit Traitors - which is a reminder of the broken lives and political and psychological torment that tainted the Games movement in the Cold War.

Housed in the German Historical Institute, former East German athletes, a number of them Olympians, speak on film about their struggles to leave the country once dubiously known as the German Democratic Republic.

The GDR's intense focus on winning and the systemic use of performance-enhancing drugs has been well chronicled but the exhibition brings home the human cost.

Each of the eight exhibition athletes managed to escape but the hollow look in their eyes and the monotone of their voices indicates the wounds they suffered have never healed.

Many were scarred by the repression of a socialist state and its perpetual desire to demonstrate superiority.

The construction of the Berlin Wall increased the pressure to excel. The athletes' mission was to win Olympic gold medals in the name of socialism on the world stage. It seems a soul-destroying experience.

Athletes were prepared to put their lives at risk to escape. The Stasi (secret police) documented the escape of several elite athletes and continued to spy on them in exile. Back in East Germany, relatives were threatened and socially isolated.

Mitbauer, a world-class swimmer, looked set to represent East Germany in the 400m freestyle at the 1972 Munich Olympics. However, he was targeted by the Stasi because of his frequent conversations with West German athletes at international meets. He realised much of the East German propaganda about the West was false.

He enlisted a West German coach to help him defect. He was soon arrested, interrogated and held in solitary confinement for seven weeks at a prison in Berlin. Mitbauer refused to defame his helper as a slave trader.

As a 19-year-old on August 17, 1969, he ate what he thought might be his last meal (two fried chickens), lathered himself in 30 tubes of Vaseline and took to the Baltic Sea to cross from Boltenhagen in East Germany to Luebeck in West Germany.

He monitored the procedures of the border guards for a week, waited for the anti-aircraft searchlights to cool off and swam for 25km, navigating by the stars. He was eventually picked up by a ferry as he clung to a buoy getting some respite from the cold water.

"Once on board, I had the best schnitzel of my life," Mitbauer said in the exhibition video. "I was a free man who had left injustice behind."

When he arrived onshore, his only possessions were his togs, flippers, a ring sewed into one of them and a medal. He studied sports education in Cologne and has since worked as a coach.

Cyclist Jurgen Kissner sneaked out of a hotel elevator to freedom in 1964 during the Olympic track cycling qualifiers in Cologne. The then 21-year-old's escape was portrayed as abduction.

His mother was deployed to Cologne to lure him back. At one point, she seized a moment away from her Stasi chaperone and told her son to stay no matter what. She went on to fabricate a story that he was unrecognisable and under the influence of drugs.

Kissner went on to Olympic silver in the 1968 team pursuit but West Germany were disqualified against Denmark in the final. Kissner put his hand on a team-mate during the race, which was illegal. He was subsequently labelled a saboteur by elements of the press. There were rumours he'd been smuggled across by the East Germans to infiltrate their opponents' system.

Kissner said he also suffered at the 1965 world championships in Spain when East German officials taunted him during competition with names like traitor, criminal and bastard.

An estimated 600-plus East German athletes, including a number of Olympians, found a way to slip through the Iron Curtain. Sprinter Ines Giepel (52) fell in love with a Mexican race walker before the 1984 Games. She wanted to leave the GDR as a result.

That was deemed a threat to the regime. Giepel was expelled from competing in top level sport in 1985. She escaped from Hungary to Austria in 1989. She was also unaware of the harm caused by doping practices until 1997 but consequently helped send a number of functionaries, doctors and coaches to prison. She renounced her 1984 world record because of coerced doping and demanded a historical clearance of similar world records in top-level sport.

Breaststroker Renate Bauer (57) suffered post-Munich from drug-taking and says she felt like a guinea pig. In 1979, she got a plane ticket and a West German passport from friends before heading to Budapest and then Munich under a false name. Her second place to a West German during the 1974 European Championships incurred the displeasure of the authorities and was the catalyst for her move.

- Herald on Sunday

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