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Sports

Germany's Lackluster Athletes Worry Sports Lovers

The German sports scene lacks star power. Whether its swimming, soccer or skiing, sports commentators are finding reasons to be pessimistic about 2009.

Weightlifter Matthias Steiner, left, and swimmer Britta Steffen

This year's German Athletes of the Year -- but the country's top athletes are not exactly household names

First, the good news. Germany will host the world athletics championships in 2009. But apart from that Berlin event, the forecast for the nation's sports is as bleak as the glum economic predictions.

The former sports power lacks stars in major sports ranging from football to athletics and swimming. In addition, there is an almost frightening disappearance of events from tennis to Formula One.

Always second best

Steffi Graf after her first Wimbledon victory on July 2, 1988

Germany needs another Steffi Graf

Berlin and Leipzig have suffered embarrassment in their attempts to host Olympic Games in recent years.

Major events such as Wimbledon are no longer broadcast on free-to-air television channels and there is no footage at all of the elite Golden League athletics series as soccer rules the airwaves, pushing out almost anything else.

Perennial runner-up Michael Ballack was the only German on the shortlist for the 2009 World Footballer award. Katrin Krabbe was the last German to win an athletics world title on the track in 1991. And the tennis glory days of Boris Becker and Steffi Graf are long gone.

Germany placed fifth in the medal table at the Beijing Olympics, but a report from a Leipzig-based training institute (IAT) said that was no reason to cheer.

"High-performance sport in Germany is in danger of losing contact to developments in world sports. Performances are on the decline in many sports," the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) newspaper wrote in mid-December, quoting an IAT report.

Bleak all year 'round

Michael Ballack crouches on a soccer field in the rain

Michael Ballack has had to be content with second place

Had Britta Steffen not managed to win gold medals in the 50 and 100-meter freestyle events in Beijing, Germany would have ended with no gold at all in the showcase sports of athletics and swimming, which alone account for 81 of the 302 gold medals on offer at the Games.

The winter situation is similar, with Germany only a minor player in the popular sports of alpine skiing and figure skating. Instead, German athletes win their medals in luge, biathlon or bobsleigh, events which are not popular in many countries.

According to the SZ, Germany is the only country from the world's big six -- the others being the US, China, Great Britain, Russia and Australia -- which doesn't focus on sports with the most medals on offer or those with a long tradition in the country.

The IAT criticism ranges from badly educated coaches to a lack of scientific support.

Stellar stadiums aren't enough

Austrian skier Elisabeth Goergl on a slalom run

Germany's winter sports prowess is also lacking

Only last week Germany coach Joachim Loew and other officials went to France to look at the country's famous soccer academy in Clairefontaine. Germany has no such institute and lags behind in club and country competitions.

"We are world class as far as stadium atmosphere is concerned. But we must do more on the pitch," said former German soccer coach Juergen Klinsmann, now in charge at Bayern Munich.

Germany came in second at Euro 2008 but had its tactical deficits exposed by Spain. The last title came at Euro 1996 and the World Cup has not been won since 1990.

Just one year later Krabbe -- whose name has been tainted by doping allegations -- claimed the last major sprint title when athletes from former East Germany still ruled the scene shortly after the 1990 reunification.

Doping-infested cycling is also on its way out and so is tennis, with the Hamburg Masters downgraded and the women's Berlin tournament possibly moving elsewhere.

Winter Olympics offers hope

Formula One cars on a track

The cars might be German, but the races are held elsewhere

Germany may also be without a Formula One Grand Prix in 2010, even though it is a country which has two major team players in Mercedes and BMW, a record four drivers in the field and the most successful driver ever in seven-time champion Michael Schumacher.

The main hopes for a better future lie in improved training programs, a rise of new talent and the hosting of big events. Munich is setting up a promising bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics and officials have high hopes in the athletics worlds in Berlin as well.

"We can all make 2009 a historic year in German athletics," pledged Clemens Prokop, president of the German Athletics Association.

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