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A champion of two nations
East German Heike Drechsler speaks about winning medals on either side of the Wall.
Last Modified: 08 Nov 2009 08:15 GMT

Drechsler with World Championships gold for a unified Germany team in 1993 [GALLO/GETTY]

When images of people with hammers breaking down sections of the Berlin Wall were first beamed to televisions across the globe, 24-year-old Heike Drechsler was at home in East Germany with her newborn son and her collection of eight world and Olympic medals.

A year before at the summer Games in Seoul, Drechsler had won silver in the long jump and bronze in both the 100m and 200m sprint in what would prove to be the last Olympiad for the conquering East Germany team.

The country had been only 34 years in existence when Drechsler won her first World Championships gold in 1983; the Communist state's leaders were determined to show the strength of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to a sceptical world.

Secret police

But as Drechsler told Al Jazeera, that meant a punishing amount of training for athletes - and the intrusion of the secret police, the Stasi, into their lives.

"The leaders had been afraid that I would leave East Germany," Drechsler, now 44, says.

"I met a friend in 1986 who would always be there for sports celebrations, and then birthdays, and Christmas.

"Then in 1989 he came to me and said, 'I work for the Stasi.' He knew something was changing and was afraid. But I took it really bad and I couldn't handle it.

"We had no real contact since then. But I know that he died - he committed suicide maybe."

The story of East Germany after the Second World War is one filled with such tragedy, with families separated, private lives closely monitored, and the economy badly damaged.

But Drechsler's perspective is nuanced.

Olympic gold

Had the Wall not fallen, she may never have gone on to win two Olympic golds for a unified Germany, the last coming at Sydney 2000 at the age of 35.

"I was afraid, but also interested to see the people going over the Berlin Wall and also that this was a revolution without shooting"

Heike Drechsler,
German athlete

And yet without East Germany's ferocious drive for prestige in the sporting world, her talents might not have taken her to such heights.

"In 1989 I was thinking that when I got my son Tony in my arms, I didn't want to be in GDR sports any more because it was like the army," she said.

"Then everything was changing, it was a new chance and you could bring babies along to training.

"But there was another type of pressure. If you were from the East it was not easy for people to accept your results, because our success had been met with questions about doping.

"I continued competing but I pushed myself too much at times - I wanted to let people know that I was a big talent."

Allegations

Drechsler herself never failed a dope test, but the allegations continued as the East German team came second at all summer Games from 1976 to 1988, despite representing a nation of just 16 million people.

She missed her first Olympic appearance when East Germany joined a Soviet-led boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, then found the personal price of the team's success on her return from Seoul four years later.

Drechsler says gold was the only medal good enough for East Germany [GALLO/GETTY]
"We won a lot of medals in Seoul, I came back with a silver and two bronze but when we came home the gold medal winners went to the front of the plane and we were left at the back," she said.

"You felt that the gold medal was the only way and if you are second or third you are a loser.

"It was not easy for the GDR to be accepted by foreign countries, so the leaders wanted us to have in sport what we didn't have in other areas, and for people to say, 'this is a strong country'."

Born in Gera in the East and now living in Karlsruhe in the former West Germany, Drechsler is happy to now call herself simply German while seeing the good in both systems.

She was a member of the Communist government's Free German Youth organisation as a teenager and was elected to the GDR's Volskammer parliament at the age of just 19.

Change

Drechsler embraced the change that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, but does not pretend that the revolution was met without fear by all East Germans.

"I was busy with my son, then I saw the pictures on the TV and it was so shocking," she said.

Success for East and West

 1964: Drechsler born Heike Daute in Gera, East Germany
 1983: Wins long jump gold at the World Championships in Helsinki
 1988: Takes Olympic silver in long jump and bronze in both 100m and 200m sprint in Seoul
 1989: Fall of Berlin Wall
 1990: East and West Germany unified
 1992: Drechsler wins long jump gold for Germany at Barcelona Olympics
 2000: Becomes only woman to win two Olympic long jump gold, taking the medal again in Sydney at age 35

"I was afraid, but also interested to see the people going over the Wall and also that this was a revolution without shooting.

"In the world things have never happened like this, it was so peaceful and people were so happy. Before the Wall came down a lot of families were split and now they could be together again.

"But I had seen pictures in China [Beijing's Tiananmen Square] where students were rebelling and there were people shot, so I was afraid that this could happen to us."

For Drechsler, a host of Olympic, world and European medals would follow, culminating in her triumph in Australia nine years ago.

Her two favourite memories straddle both the countries she has represented at the highest level.

"I was not so young any more so to get a gold in Sydney was crazy," she said.

"I love the people there and the atmosphere, and I had a feeling that maybe this would be the last big medal I won.

"It will always be a picture in my mind, and I really start to cry when I show people the photos.

"But also my first gold at Helsinki in '83, when I was just 18 and part of this big East team. I had very hard opponents and it was my first World Championships.

"Now it's very good that we are one team and my son's generation don't think about East and West. They think Germany."

Source:
Al Jazeera
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