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Sports

Germany's Soldier-Athletes Storm Beijing

One third of the German athletes competing at the Beijing Olympics are soldiers in the Bundeswehr. These soldier-athletes have won their country countless medals over the years, but they are not quite ordinary soldiers.

Kerstin Stegemann takes on a Nigerian player at the Beijing Olympics

Kerstin Stegemann (right) has the Bundewehr to thank for her shot at the Olympics

The repeated success of German soldiers at the biathlon is perhaps unsurprising given their military shooting training, but the Bundeswehr athletes' expertise is by no means limited to militant pursuits.

This was demonstrated by Germany's first gold medalists at the Beijing Olympics, corporals Alexander Grimm and Ole Bischof, in single kayak slalom and middleweight judo, respectively.

The success of these soldier-athletes may seem less surprising considering the German Ministry of Defense spends 27 million euros ($40 million) each year on supporting top athletes and is one of the biggest supporters of sports in Germany.

Soccer world champion and two-time bronze medalist Kerstin Stegemann belongs to one of the army's training programs.

"I'm training at the Bundeswehr sport school in Warendorf where I can use the best training facilities," she told Bundeswehr-organized Web site "Olympix." "In addition to that, we have at our disposal doctors and physiotherapists from the Bundeswehr Institute of Sport Medicine, who can help us keep fit and give us advice for training."

Including the 56 female and 71 male soldier-athletes competing in China, there are currently 704 so-called "top athletes" who benefit from the Bundeswehr's network of 18 sports training groups.

Advantages over other athletes

David Bichinashvili stretching

Wrestler David Bichinashvili trains with the Bundeswehr

The German army's special training programs gives priority to Olympic sports and sports that would are difficult to practice and compete in without expensive facilities.

This is reflected by the 127 Bundeswehr athletes in China who are competing in a range of 24 categories, from beach volleyball to taekwondo, with the biggest numbers seeking medals in athletics, swimming and rowing.

The military's support seems to bring results. At the Athens Olympics in 2004 half of Germany's 48 medals were won by Bundeswehr athletes.

The special programs offered to top athletes include exempting them from all but basic military training, allowing them to devote the remaining 70 percent of their time to their chosen sport. Only very exceptionally and purely voluntarily are soldier-athletes posted in the field and military exercises are organized around competitions whenever possible.

"(With the Bundeswehr) I can train two to three times a day," Stegemann said. "That is an enormous advantage over my colleagues in other clubs who have to pursue a normal career and can only train after work."

A long history of military support

A German soldier works out in Afghanistan

Even German soldiers posted in Afghanistan work out

Having first instituted sports training for soldiers in 1842 under Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, today's soldiers and recruits are required to take part in at least four hours of sport per week.

in 1968 the German government asked that the army set up the special program to support athletes capable of competing at a high level and help them balance their sport training with military duties.

To become a "top athlete" and receive special support, any national team player can submit an application, which is reviewed by the German Olympic Sports Confederation and the training group itself, before the athlete's recruitment into the military can take place.

"I had the great stroke of luck that the Bundeswehr took me on," Stegemann said. "I will stay loyal to the Bundeswehr and to my sport."

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