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Culture

German Sports Giants Mull Merger

After a relatively disappointing performance at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, German sports functionaries have been thinking about ways to get back on track. One option is to merge the country's top sports organizations.

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Swimmer Franziska van Almsick disappointed at the Olympics

For decades Germany was an Olympic giant. In the 1970s and 1980s, West and East Germany regularly placed about third in the summer medal count -- behind the USSR and the USA. But at Athens 2004, the medals disappeared: Germany placed fifth, sixth in golds.

Sub-par performances still taint the public's memory of the Games, for example swimmer Antje Buschschulte after a sixth-place backstroke finish, nearly in tears, explaining that "she couldn't really feel the water."

This has prompted calls to find ways to bring more golds back to Germany: The entire system should be restructured. That's what everybody is saying -- athletes, coaches, national sport officials.

Right now Germany has two main organizations which prepare athletes for the Olympic games: the national Olympic committee (NOK) and the German Sport Federation (DSB).

Some say it's like having a team with two head coaches. So to save confusion, money, and bureaucracy, high-level administrators plan to unite the two.

But Olympian Stefan Forster, who rowed at the 1996 Athens Olympics, thinks blaming the two groups won't improve things: Germany's sport problems are much more comprehensive, he said.

"It's about how to combine sports and normal life, it's about the federalist system of Germany, where you have problems with coaches at home, coaches at the level of the state and the overall head coach for the head country," he said. "There's so much friction... and this doesn't have anything to do with NOK and the DSB."

Passing the buck?

Some say uniting them is a way of passing the buck for the burnout of the Olympic flame by the head of the German sport federation, Manfred von Richthofen.

But Olympians themselves, like Forster, imply that prestige is half the problem. In other words, Olympic sport has become too much a political game in Germany, where leaders dodge the bullet rather than train the athletes, and where the media -- including state media like the national TV network -- judge success of the athletes themselves by the number of medals rather than how hard they tried.

Interviewer Michael Steinbrecher grilled icon swimmer Fransizka van Almsick in front of the entire country about her team's failure when she was already visibly disappointed.

"Every sportler just cares for himself, his result, and he doesn't look for the medal ranks of Germany as a whole," Foster said. "It's just his own personal competition he's aiming at.... but in Germany, the government and the newspapers and press and everything just looks at the overall medal ranks, like the money which is given to sports in Germany is distributed after their position they reach in the medal rank."

Participation matters, not winning -- that's the old Olympic idea. Maybe the question shouldn't be, how do German athletes win golds again.

But in Germany, it seems only winning is rewarded. So when they stop winning, fewer end up wanting to participate -- that's the vicious cycle, and by restructuring itself, German Olympic sport hopes to get out of it.

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