As part of their Nine for IX series, ESPN aired the new documentary The Diplomat last week, featuring figure-skating icon Katarina Witt. The film traces the career and legacy of the back-to-back Olympic Gold medal-winner from East Germany, placing her achievements on the ice in the context of Cold War politics. At a time when sports was intricately linked to the politics of the state, Witt was considered the “most beautiful face of socialism.”
While Witt’s story begins at a rink in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) when the second-grader was “selected” by the German Democratic Republic as a potential talent, the documentary lingers on the complicated politics behind Witt’s later skating achievements—revealing how the GDR both launched (and paid for) her meteroic rise but also threatened to end her career by preventing her from skating professionally. In East Germany, her success was an asset to the government, and bringing home medals not just a symbol of national pride but of global triumph.
Witt and other elite East German athletes were groomed to be, as one of Katarina’s skating contemporaries, Ingo Steuer, put it, “diplomats in track suits.” By 16, she began winning international titles, thus becoming an ambassador for East Germany and a “Communist propaganda symbol” on and off the ice. In 1987, she thanked the government, telling politicians,
Our athletes are often admired abroad and asked what is the secret to our success. The answer lies in our socialist democratic society, the GDR. The future is on our side, the side of socialism.
In exchange for her loyalty, Witt was afforded many special privileges as an elite athlete—a passport, a car, an apartment, among other luxuries. But she had to earn it. Said Witt,
When I first realized the power I had, and I knew they couldn’t just keep me in the country and hide me away. But to keep the power that I had, I had to keep winning.
Kati, as she was fondly known in Germany, won her first Olympic gold medal in 1984, when she was 18, and then was world champion in 1984 and 1985. She dropped to silver-medal status at the 1986 world competition, losing to American rival Debi Thomas, but the next year reclaimed her world title with an elegant long program skated to “West Side Story.”
Witt was a natural performer, delighting audiences with her energizing, beautiful routines. Her triple jumps were sturdy and strong, with crisp landings, and her footwork bold and dynamic. And she thrived in competition, often delivering her best performances under pressure. But what made Witt shine above all the rest was her knack for striking the perfect balance of grace and power, wrote ESPN’s Johnette Howard:
Skating has always wanted its women’s champions to look like prima ballerinas but throw themselves into triple jumps like predators, and Witt was able to do both seamlessly while still consciously playing against Eastern-bloc stereotypes.
In 1988, Witt headed to Calgary for the Winter Olympics in a much-anticipated showdown with Thomas, now known as the “Battle of the Carmens” (both skated their long program to music from Bizet’s “opera). But there was more than a medal at stake for Witt: The GDR would let her continue skating and turn pro only if she won gold. If she lost, she would have to hang up her skates and would not be allowed to leave the country to perform professionally. Luckily for her she triumphed, landing four triple jumps and double axels.
Immediately following her victory at the Games, she joined the European tour of “Holiday on Ice,” and in 1989, she began filming “Carmen on Ice” in Seville, Spain with U.S. skater Brian Boitano. During that time, hordes of protesters gathered in the streets of Leipzig, and shortly the Berlin Wall came crashing down.
Living in a reunified Germany, however, came with its own set of difficulties for a privileged state-sponsored athlete such as Witt. Germany was in a state of chaos and outrage, and Kati suddenly became a target. Having benefited immensely from an abusive and repressive government, she felt conflicted. Then in 1992, the disturbing discovery that the Stasi—East Germany’s secret police—had been spying on her since she was 7 years old, bugging her apartment and the skating rink and compiling a massive 1,300-page dossier, left Witt feeling betrayed.
The Diplomat doesn’t gloss over the tangled legacy of Witt’s figure skating career, nor does it attempt to reconcile the Kati of before and after the Berlin Wall. She went on to skate in ice tours, pose in Playboy, produce and star in a film loosely based on personal experiences, and now manages her own entertainment production company in Berlin. With candor and no apologies, Witt says,
I guess as more time passes by, you create more pride about what you’ve done. The sport was my tool to live my freedom. And it was a very strict tool in a way, because you had to become the world’s best. But that was my freedom: to try to be a good athlete. … And I think one thing that always helped me, that I have always had in my life, was that for me, the glass is always half full. Not half empty.
You can read more about The Diplomat on ESPNW.com and watch it on demand (if that’s available on your TV). Tonite on ESPN, the Nine for IX series will screen The Runner about famed U.S. middle-distance runner Mary Decker, directed by Shola Lynch (a former track competitor herself).
Photos of Katarina Witt from Wikimedia Commons.