German track and field athlete Heide Ecker-Rosendahl won two gold medals and a silver medal at the '72 Olympics. She talks about Rio, the criticism of the IOC, and tells DW why it's harder for competitive athletes today.
At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany's Heide Ecker-Rosendahl not only won long jump gold and pentathlon silver, she also took a second gold and contributed to a world record as the last runner in the sprint relay.
DW spoke with Ecker-Rosendahl about differences in doping then and now, why the IOC's decision regarding Russia was cowardly, and whether the Olympics will ever return to Germany.
The interview was conducted by DW reporter Neil King.
Deutsche Welle: The run-up to the Rio Olympics was marred by chaos. What's your impression of the Games so far?
Heide Ecker-Rosendahl: I am very skeptical. In principle, I am still enthusiastic about sports. I follow the competitions and cheer for the athletes. But I have to say I was hardly looking forward to Rio. I used to always know when special competitions were taking place.
What has caused your apathy?
I lost my enthusiasm over the doping and corruption news. What particularly saddens me are the half-empty stands in the Olympic venues. Munich in '72 was entirely different. Every time I have an appointment in Munich's Olympic stadium, I still get the feeling you have when people cheer. That only happens in full stadiums though. When spectators in Rio cannot make it to the events in time due to security checks or because tickets are too expensive, they have to give the tickets away for free. That would be much better than having empty stadiums. I believe Rio's blemish won't go away.
The Munich Games in 1972 were the highlight of your professional career. Did the success fundamentally change your life?
One doesn't get into such a situation overnight. I was already European champion and world record holder at the time. It grows on you. But a stadium with 80,000 people screaming my name was not exactly a mundane experience. You have got to open a sort of tunnel and focus on it. But once you are on the podium, you do feel a sort of validation: "You've made it, somewhere you've done everything right." It's like a soothing wave of validation flowing through your body.
How soon did you realize that you could make it to the top athletically?
As a child, you don't care about long-term goals. I grew up in a family that always engaged in sports. My father was a discus thrower, and I got my first gymnastics lesson as a two-year-old. I didn't start track and field until I was 13 or 14, but I could already jump six meters as a teenager. When racing with my peers, I realized I was faster than all of them. That's when track and field had gripped me.
How did you experience the hostage drama at the '72 Olympics?
I could see the house of the Israeli team from my high-rise in the Olympic village. It was very strange. At first we had no idea what was going on. Back then you didn't associate a terrorist attack with images that immediately pop into your head today.
You were one of the few people who was allowed to visit the female Israeli athletes in the catacombs after the attack. What was the atmosphere like?
The Israelis wanted to go to the streets and defend themselves - after all, they were all trained soldiers. That caught us by surprise. One had to restrain them with a lot of persuasion. Coping with that was hard for us. And then the track and field federation leadership even received death threats against me.
They were copy-cats who took advantage of the situation. For three days, I had to live in a hotel because we publicly spoke out about the Israelis and the continuation of the Games. To this day, we don't know the origin of the threats. I didn't take them that seriously in those days. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, stayed with me in the hotel, and only one member of the federation knew about my whereabouts. That was on Tuesday. By the time the relay started four days later, I was back.
You kept your poise amid all this chaos and won.
We wanted to demonstrate: "Listen, we are on the track, this is where we fight." It was a source of motivation. "Now more than ever, we can also do pleasant Games" was the prevailing mentality. We were jovial again, without forgetting the Israeli comrades.
You are saying it was the right decision to continue the Games?
The last thing we wanted was for the terror to win. One shouldn't let those things take control. A few of us, however, left because they couldn't cope with it. Fortunately, we had a few days to focus on the relay again.
Shifting gears to doping: When comparing sports and Olympics now and then, are you surprised the long jump world record of 7.52 meters set by the Russian Galina Tschistjakowa in 1988 still stands today?
That record was set with the help of substances. I believe one needn't prove anymore that distances over seven meters and 20 centimeters under the best of circumstances have been rare. In my days there were only amphetamines.
How do you usually react when someone sets a new track and field world record?
One gets skeptical at once. I don't believe Russia is the only country that used clandestine practices. What I don't understand is that the clean athletes - I guess they still exist [laughs] - don't come out of the closet and say: "They spoil the joy of competitive sports." Proving that you are clean is the hardest thing. I find it puzzling how it can take the IOC and WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] such a long time to scrutinize those things.
How did you react to the decision of the IOC not to take action against Russia's doping - to leave that chioce to the individual sports federations?
That was a cowardly decision. I do not understand that the IOC does not institute clear parameters by saying: "Athletes can only participate under such and such requirements." They don't protect the clean athletes, and they can't.
Are athletes today under more pressure than you back then because of the increasing commercialization of the sport?
The pressure has resulted from the fact that most athletes in Olympics-only disciplines don't earn enough to make ends meet. Back in the day, we weren't able to perform competitively without having a job on the side. Today's athletes are not only under pressure to perform, they also have existential pressure. That's why it's all the more important to strengthen the clean athletes and make sure they are among themselves. Those who dope are to start their own federation.
Many other athletes and sport scientists have echoed this sentiment. They say: "Let the athletes dope until they are kaput." Then everyone will be in the know and the problem will eventually take care of itself. What's your take on that?
I'm glad I am not competing today. There's always been cheaters, but I do feel that the clean athletes are in the minority in this day and age. I find that regretful. I'm afraid the only solution is for the big federations to rigorously wipe the sport clean.
When will the Olympic Games return to Germany?
Unless the IOC changes its philosophy, we won't see Games in democratic countries anytime soon. Only in autocratic ones.
Heide Ecker-Rosendahl is one of Germany's most successful sportswomen and one of the world's best female track and field athletes of the 1970s. After her active career, the two-time Olympic champion and former world champion worked as a coach, sports lecturer and sports promoter.