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Katarina Witt: The “beautiful face of socialism” made a career

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Katarina Witt: The “beautiful face of socialism” made a career

At the last moment there was another big shock – both among the Olympic participants from the GDR and their coaches and in front of millions of television sets in both parts of Germany, East and West. Because the 18 year old Katarina Witt out of Chemnitz (then called “Karl Marx City”) had delivered an almost perfect routine on the ice at the women’s figure skating final on the evening of February 18, 1984, always smiling in a friendly manner – and received a grade of 5.8 or 5.9 from the judges.

But then the last skater to come onto the ice was the reigning world champion, the almost 20-year-old American Rosalynn Sumners. She made a mistake once, managed one triple jump less than Witt – and ran elegantly, but with “icy coldness”, as it appeared to observers. Nevertheless, the Italian Giorgio Siniscalco pulled out the sign on the judge’s bench with the top grade of 6.0, which was practically never awarded.

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The delegation from the SED state held their breath, as did many German living rooms, where it was not only women who were keeping their fingers crossed for the Saxon student. The final ranking resulted from the individual evaluations for compulsory (40 percent), short program (20 percent) and freestyle (also 40 percent), each of which was based on the A grades awarded by the judges (included in the technique and difficulty of the program) and B grades (for artistic expression) passed. Because of the complicated procedure, it was not immediately clear what effect Siniscalco’s assessment, which was widely perceived as inappropriate, would have on the final result.

Coach Jutta Müller with her master student Katarina Witt at the European Figure Skating Championships in Budapest in January 1984

Quelle: picture alliance / SvenSimon

It took a moment for the computer at the ice rink in Sarajevo (then Yugoslavia) to determine the final order: Katarina Witt was ahead of Rosalynn Sumners by a tiny 0.2 points. That meant gold for the athlete from the GDR and silver for the US world champion.

WELT found harsh words and judged that the Italian had “not made the world champion an Olympic champion as he had hoped” but had “just made a fool of himself”. The “Bild” newspaper (like WELT published by Axel Springer) rated it even more drastically: “Scandal! Beautiful Katarina almost cheated out of gold!”

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Rosalynn Sumners commented briefly and rather unkindly on her competitor’s victory with the words: “She looks like Brooke Shields.” In fact, the GDR athlete clearly resembled the US actress, who was only a few months older – which may not have done her any harm, but it certainly did was also not the reason for its success.

Katarina Witt’s award ceremony in Sarajevo in 1984; left Rosalyn Sumners (silver) and Kira Ivanowa (bronze)

Source: picture-alliance / Augenklick/ Photo Rauchsteiner

At the award ceremony on the podium in the middle of the ice, Summers smiled again and thus covered her disappointment. For Katarina Witt, a dream came true at that moment. Ever since she watched her clubmate Anett Pötzsch’s victory at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Palcid (USA) on television, she wanted to emulate her: “I would like to be on that podium one day too.”

Pötzsch (who was also Katarina’s sister-in-law) had ended her career at the peak and started studying coaching, so the path was clear for the younger woman from Chemnitz. She began her sports career at the age of five when she first got on ice skates. As a ten-year-old, she won the “Children and Youth Spartakiade”, a young talent competition in the Eastern Bloc, and two years later she came to coach Jutta Müller, who also looked after Anett Pötzsch.

The first international medals followed in 1982: silver at the European and World Championships. The following year, the first victory (apart from the less important GDR championship titles, which she had subscribed to since 1981): European champion, in Dortmund at that, i.e. “with the class enemy,” as they said in the GDR.

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Triumph “with the class enemy”: Katarina Witt wins the European Skating Championships in Dortmund in 1983

Quelle: picture alliance / Klaus Rose

But then the setback followed: At the 1983 World Championships, Katarina Witt botched her duty and took a disappointing (and generally thankless) fourth place. “It looked as if the beautiful girl could no longer withstand the pressure to perform,” wrote WELT. But she was back for the Winter Olympics – relaxed, happy and better than ever. She had overcome her weaknesses in her duties through a lot of training – and when asked about her protégé’s secret, trainer Jutta Müller said: “Hard work every day.”

The SED dictatorship, which saw athletes primarily as “diplomats in tracksuits,” thanked Katarina Witt for her victory in Sarajevo, which was followed by many more at the World and European Championships and again at the Olympic Games in 1988: The athlete lived an absolutely privileged life. The Stasi always kept a close eye on them, but they were also happy to fulfill one or two wishes: new cars outside the line, for example, a modern and larger apartment or something else. At the same time, she had been under surveillance since she was a child, because it would have been a bitter defeat for the SED leadership if a sports star like “Die Witt” had “moved over” to the West.

Erich Honecker congratulates Olympic figure skating champion Katarina Witt. In the middle Frank-Peter Roetsch

Quelle: picture-alliance / dpa

Katarina Witt retained her role as the “most beautiful face of socialism” until the fall of the Honecker regime. And with a naivety that was astonishing for an internationally successful star, she maintained her fundamentally positive attitude towards the SED dictatorship for a long time after reunification. In 1996 she stuck with her then manager Diether Dehm, even though he had been convicted as a Stasi spy (and later even entered the Bundestag for the Left Party).

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When the Stasi records archive wanted to publish parts of the Stasi files on Katarina Witt (code name for the case: “Flop”) in 2001, the double Olympic champion, who was now a professional ice skating actress, sued. After months of wrangling, 181 of an initial 1,354 sheets were finally released, showing them as “beneficiaries” of the SED secret service; later more documents surfaced. What was less problematic was that Katarina Witt, as a girl and young woman, had allowed herself to be courted by the SED and supported by the Stasi. What is more, however, is how they deal with it after 1990.

This did not affect her career as a media star in the Federal Republic: Katarina Witt is still doing well in business even after her time as a professional figure skater ended. She occasionally appears as a prominent face on shows or as a guest star in TV series, and otherwise looks after a foundation that bears her name. It all started on the evening of February 18, 1984 in the ice rink in Sarajevo.

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