Over 600 top athletes were among the 3 million East Germans who escaped to the West. Their loss was deeply painful to the regime, which did everything it could to stop them.
Axel Mitbauer was just 19 years old when he jumped into the cold Baltic Sea on August 17, 1969. He chose the seaside resort of Boltenhagen, because it was the most westerly resort on the coast. That meant he had 22 kilometers (14 miles) to swim to escape to the West.
Mitbauer was a tall, wiry man, probably the only man in the former communist East Germany who could have escaped the country by swimming. His mother covered him with 30 tubes of petroleum jelly to prevent chafing.
The swimming itself "was nothing so special," says Mitbauer today. The problem was the cold. And "keeping going in the right direction."
Freestyle to freedom
Axel Mitbauer swam 22 kilometers to escape to the West
Mitbauer, who came from Leipzig, was one of the world's best middle-distance swimmers at the end of the 60s. But he was getting into increasing trouble with the authorities in East Germany as a result of his open manner. The indoctrination got on his nerves. During an international competition in Budapest, he met secretly with some West German swimmers to ask if they could help him escape the East, and that brought him to the attention of the Stasi secret police.
During the Tokyo Olympics in 1968, shortly after his escape plans became known, he found himself in the Stasi prison at Hohenschönhausen - with its isolation cells without light and 12-hour long interrogations.
He was there for eight months, but when he came out, Mitbauer, who's 1.92 meters (6 feet, 3 inches) tall, weighed just 59 kilograms (130 pounds). He was a broken man and his sporting future had been destroyed. That's why he escaped in August 1969. He rested on a buoy in Lübeck Bay, and waited until a passenger ferry found him. The next day, the mass-circulation daily Bild told his story in photographs. The comrades in East Berlin were furious.
Shortly after that, East Germany sharpened its observation of its top sportsmen and women. Their most intimate details were spied upon; family members were enrolled as informers; anyone who helped to stop someone leaving the country could expect honor and financial reward.
Axel Mitbauer is one of some 615 top athletes who escaped from East Germany before 1989. But there's never been any systematic research, and, according to sport historian Jutta Braun, "The unofficial number is probably much higher."
"Fighting for the nonsense of socialism"
East Germany was always trying to prove itself internationally against the West, and in many respects, it didn't have a chance. Sport was different: the regime saw sport as the perfect way to present the country to the whole world in a favorable light. At least in sports, the communist system should be shown to be better. And more often than not since 1972, East Germany did manage to win more Olympic gold medals than West Germany and the United States.
So its athletes were a major asset for East Germany. But it was essential that no information should get out about the conditions under which their achievements were reached: the training, the medical care, the drill, the doping. Even worse than the loss to the country's sport was the loss to the country's prestige if even its most privileged champions could not be stopped from leaving.
"We were warriors," says the former ski-jumper Hans-Georg Aschenbach, "deployed on the political front, fighting for the nonsense of socialism." And he adds that they were the puppets of an idea which didn't have the slightest to do with sport.
The list of the top athletes who left East Germany sounds like a Who's Who of sport: football trainer Jörg Berger, footballer Jürgen Sparwasser, and Aschenbach himself, a 1976 Olympics gold medalist, who escaped in 1988 during a competition in the Black Forest. By then, at 37, he'd come to realize that sport in East Germany was war under another name. As he put it in his autobiography: "My skis were the weapons."
Sport refugees risked death
Lutz Eigendorf - one of the East's top footballers - also managed to escape, but he paid for his attempt with his life. The circumstances are still not clear, but it's alleged that the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, himself gave the command, since he saw the escape as a personal insult. Whatever the reason, Eigendorf's death scared many off. And not without reason: Falko Götz, who eventually joined the Bundesliga, and Aschenbach himself found out that they weren't dealing with conspiracy theories when they looked at their secret police files: they discovered they'd been spied upon even after they'd reached the West.
Few athletes want to talk about their experience, even today. They're still worried about the old East German personal connections, which, they believe, still function. Former refugees find themselves threatened by former Stasi members even now, 23 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"My experience is that there are still massive attacks and physical assaults," says Ines Geipel, once an East German sprinter, anti-doping activist, and fastest woman in the world. "That includes being beaten up in the street or threatening phone calls."
The Stasi found out that Geipel was trying to leave the country, and set its spies on her. She managed to escape through Hungary in 1989.
Author: Christoph Richter / mll
Editor: Andreas Illmer