To mark the start of the Olympic Games two weeks ago, I published part I of a look at the sporting career of an elite-level GDR athtete Ms. Kordula Striepecke. Born in the GDR in 1963, Ms. Striepecke was identified as a promising athlete at a young age and pt. I of her story covers her first years as a competitive paddler through to her admission to the Sport School in Leipzig, on East Germany’s top level training centres for young athletes, in 1978-79. This post picks up at that point with the young Kordula believing that her dream of competing at an Olympic Games was coming nearer to her grasp.
Canoe Slalom Doesn’t Make the Cut
As discussed in earlier posts on this blog, East German officials saw elite sport primarily as a tool to buff the country’s international image. Athletes were “diplomats in training suits” and substantial resources were funneled to those competing in Olympic disciplines where the prospects for success were greatest. Those disciplines not offering a prominent international stage were shut out from support.
Women’s canoe slalom made its Olympic debut in 1972 in Munich, but IOC officials quickly decided to drop it from ’76 Games in Montreal with a promise to reassess things before the 1980 Moscow Olympics. By the fall of 1978, just as Kordula was entering the Sport School in Leipzig, IOC officials confirmed their earlier decision and announced that women’s canoe slalom would no longer be among the Olympic disciplines.
News of this decision reached Kordula and her canoe slalom teammates at the Sport School early in 1979: “That was one of the darkest days of my life, because it was like my whole world had fallen apart. I knew that my dreams would never come true, I’d never get to compete at an Olympics, never take part in a World Championships . . .” While the group was allowed to remain at the school through to the end of the year, they were informed that after that they would have to return home.
Above: GDR postage stamps commemorating the World Canoe Slalom Championships which took place in Rote Weißeritz, GDR in July 1961.
Return to Everyday Life and Sporting Success
In addition to processing the major disappointment of seeing her sport fall from favour, Kordula faced other challenges reintegrating herself back into everyday life in Erfurt. The main problem here was that authorities were initially unwilling to grant Kordula, an excellent student, a spot in the academic-oriented Erweiterte Oberschule (Advanced Secondary School) due to her parents’ class backgrounds (her mother was a graphic designer with post-secondary training while the fact that her father was a private businessman rendered him politically suspect). After her parents agitated tirelessly, authorities finally relented, but Kordula quickly realized that she had fallen behind in a number of subjects: “The Sport Schools were set up for a 13 year study program, not 12 as in the regular schools. This meant that I had missed out on content in a number of courses during my year away, so I really had to apply myself to make up for this.”
Outside of school, Kordula spent much of her time on the water and did not let her experience with the Sport School sour her love for canoe slalom. She rejoined her local club, Progress Erfurt, both as the trainer of the club’s 10-year old paddlers and an athlete, initially competing in the Junior ranks. Training on her own five days a week, Kordula quickly came to dominate the Junior class nationwide and, seeking greater challenges, she quickly began to compete in the Women’s class. In 1980, Kordula’s dedication to her sport was rewarded with her victory at GDR National Championships: “I was still in high school and a Junior-aged competitor at that time, and there was a huge article (see above) in the paper after I won.* This got hung up at school, and I remember it all being a really big deal.”
Amazingly, this was just the beginning of Kordula’s success as she would go on to defend her East German eight times through to 1988; after her fifth victory, the GDR government event awarded her the honorific title “Master of Sport”.
Competing with the GDR National Team
While the GDR had dropped women’s canoe slalom from the list of disciplines receiving full government support, the country still fielded a national team for an annual competition with teams from neighbouring Poland and Czechoslovakia. The Poles and Czechoslovaks were among the best teams in this discipline on the world level, so this competition served as a useful measuring stick for the East German athletes to gauge where they stood vis-a-vis the world’s best.
“The Czechs and the Poles were among the world leaders in canoe slalom, so it gave us an opportunity to realistically assess where we stood. Over the years, we began to fall further behind and so we saw how not having the chance to compete internationally was affecting us and that really hurt. But initially we did really well against them.
I remember once in one of the early years, a group of us were sitting together in the sauna the day before a race. One of the Polish girls was saying, ‘Next week we are going to the World Juniors and when we get back, I’m packing it in with competitive canoeing. I’ve had enough.” The next day I finished far ahead of her and I recall thinking to myself, ‘Great, you leave her in your wake and she’s going to the Worlds and you’re not allowed to!'”
Join The Party: Kordula and the NDPD
It’s worth noting that the newspaper which featured Kordula’s exploits, die Nationale Zeitung, was the official organ of the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDPD) and not one of the many papers associated with the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). That the NPDP paper took an interest in the younger Striepecke’s sporting achievements was not a coincidence, but rather a reflection of the fact that both Kordula and her father were members of the party.
That the GDR did in fact have more than one party is often rather surprising to many with only a passing knowledge of the East Bloc, but formally the country was a multiparty democracy which had four other approved parties besides the SED. This arrangement was essentially window dressing and the country was for all intents and purposes a one-party state in which SED members occupied virtually all positions of power, These other parties were made up of individuals from social groups / classes which Marxist ideology deemed unsuitable for a leadership role in public life (e.g. remnants of the bourgeoisie, practicing Christians), and offered a way for to integrate these people into East Germany’s political and social affairs, if only in a perfunctory way.
The party to which the Shriepecke’s belonged, the NDPD, was founded by authorities in the Soviet Zone of Occupation in 1948, just prior to the founding of the GDR, as a way of organizing the large number of low-level former Nazi Party members and displaced ethnic Germans from eastern and central Europe who were present the nascent GDR.
The reasons for Kordula’s father’s membership were rooted not in any Nazi past, however, but rather grew out of reality he faced as a small business owner in the GDR (see my earlier post on the Striepecke family history). Given his social status and his Christian faith, membership in the ruling SED was out of the question for Striepecke senior, but membership in one of the other parties was attractive as these attempted, in so far as it was possible, to represent the interests of the remnants of the bourgeoisie which still existed in the country. “My father only joined the (NDPD) because he thought that it might be able to offer him some support with the problems he faced in his business. And he was able to take care of a couple of things through the party which was good our shop.”
Later, when Kordula began pursuing her sporting career, her father advised her to join the NDPD as a preventative measure: “He came to me and said, look here, we have the following problem: the SED is recruiting new members and since you’re on the national team, it could be that they’ll approach you and ask you to join. If they do, you can’t turn them down without suffering the consequences (ed. – likely expulsion from national team). But if you’re already a member of one of the other parties, then they’re not allowed to approach you.” Faced with this situation, Kordula took out a party membership.
Pt. III – The Wende Comes Early For Canoe Slalom
At the 1988 Seoul Summer Games, IOC officials voted to restore reinstate women’s canoe slalom to Olympic status for 1992 Games in Barcelona. These changes caused GDR’s sporting officials to assess where the country stood in order to determine the country’s chances for reestablishing itself at the top of the world pecking order. The timeline was too short to restart the Sport School program, so authorities assigned full-time coaches to the three clubs where the remaining athletes were training and gave permission for a handful of competitors to travel to a World Cup race taking place in Mezanna, Italy in August 1989. Thanks to her high standing in the East German national team, Kordula was among the handful of paddlers selected to compete. The trip to Italy marked her first trip West and she has vivid memories including travelling through the Brenner Pass in the team van and using some of her very limited Western currency to buy an apple pie at a McDonald’s along the way (“It was terrible!! Too sweet!!”)
As was always the case for GDR athletes travelling internationally, the team was given strict rules to follow before they began their travels: “They told us, ‘No talking with the West Germans, the Austrians, or any other athletes from Western countries. This meant that you couldn’t stand there and chat with them. Of course this earned us a reputation for being arrogant and this really upset me as I would’ve loved to have talked to them.”
Keeping the GDR athletes sealed off from the other paddlers was virtually impossible, however, as the event was set up in such a way that interactions were frequent. Mealtimes where competitors ate together in a large hall, for example, offered a chance for interaction. Kordula recalls one as particularly memorable:
“Once we were having lunch and the Swiss team came in and asked ‘May we join you?’ Right away I said, ‘Sure!’ Now my teammate was in the SED (Socialist Unity Party, the ruling party in the GDR; Kordula was not) and I knew that she had to be careful, but I thought to myself, ‘What can happen?’
Well, no sooner had they sat down then one of them asked, ‘What do you have to say about the elections to the People’s Chamber?’ (ed. – likely a reference to results of elections for municipal councils in the GDR that had taken place that spring. Opposition groups monitoring these had proven that the SED had committed widespread electoral fraud and this news received considerable attention in the international press.) My jaw dropped. What was I supposed to say? Should I give my honest opinion or what? So I said, ‘Yes, we don’t believe that the result of 99.9% for Mr. Honecker either.’ Then I quickly added, ‘If one of our coaches or team staff comes in, we’ll have to change tables. Please understand.’ The words had barely left my mouth when in came our head trainer, so we had to get up and leave.
After lunch on the walk back to the competition site, the Swiss caught up to us and even thanked us for explaining our situation. If we hadn’t, they said, they wouldn’t have understood our behaviour.”
For Kordula, this competition, where she placed 11th just behind the then reigning world champion, French paddler Miriam Jerusalmi, remains a vivid memory.
Crisis of Conscience: “And so I asked myself, ‘What would you do?’
Returning home after her Italian adventure, Kordula found herself facing a variety of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, the new situation presented an unexpected opportunity to realize her sporting dreams, but it had also brought to mind a recent unsettling encounter she had had at a church event in East Berlin.
There, Kordula had fallen into conversation with a former high performance track athlete from the northern city of Schwerin. This man told Kordula that he had been scheduled to compete for the GDR in the marathon at the ’88 Seoul Olympics, but that he had been cut from team after refusing to promise to deliver a prepared statement denying the use of doping in GDR sport if he were asked about this at a press conference. Once dropped from the team, he was placed on sick leave and both he and his wife lost their teaching jobs. After a time, he was given new work, as a janitor in his former school, but the family was informed that their daughter would longer be able to pursue her choice of field in her university studies.
This experience gave Kordula pause:
“The authorities essentially demoted the entire family and caused me to ask myself, what would you do if you’re faced with that sort of thing? You train hard, you’re focused on a goal and are about to nominated for the Olympic team. Competing at one of these games is what you’ve worked for all your life. In that situation, I wondered whether I would be strong enough to stand up and say ‘No’. That was a real issue for me. I asked myself, ‘What would you do?’
And so I spoke with a Pastor associated with SRS (Sportler ruft Sportler, a Christian organization which provides spiritual counselling to athletes) and asked, ‘What should I do if this comes up? How should I behave?’ And he said, ‘You know what, we Christians are the salt of the earth, light in a hostile world. You can have an effect on life here through the position you take. When the time comes, God will give you the strength to do what is right.’ After that I thought, ‘OK, you don’t have to decide now, you can wait until you face the decision and you’ll do the right thing, even if it means going against what part of you wants. Where you want to compete in an event that you’ve trained so hard for, your heart burns for this, but you know that doing so is unfair or dishonest . . .’
I was so, so grateful when the Wall fell, as it meant I no longer had to make this decision or be placed in a situation where I faced a real crisis of conscience .”
A Dream Comes True
The political changes in the two Germanies had a profound impact on their sport systems and the athletes within each. For Kordula Striepecke, the fusion of the two German teams offered another chance to make good on her life long dream to compete at her sport’s highest level. At age 26, she was considered old by those running a program where paddlers were typically deemed ineligible for further financial support after the age of 23. Still, Kordula was given the chance to qualify for the German team and she was the only former East German paddler to qualify for an individual event. “It was tough,” she remembers, “but I was incredibly happy to make the team and I am so grateful to God for getting the opportunity to experience all that I did in the years that followed.”
Striepecke remembers the uncertainty of that period of transition: “In general, the West German athletes and coaches didn’t know the East Germans that well. They had this idea of ‘GDR, elite sport, state sponsorship’ and they were afraid that we were going to come over and take all the spots on the team. This wasn’t so much the case in my discipline though, and I was able to establish some really good relationships with my western team mates. There were some similar views there, but they didn’t have any idea that we hadn’t received state funding.”
During the following nine years that she competed for Germany, Kordula Striepecke was able to realize her childhood dreams, competing at both the Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996) Olympics as well as four World Championships. Her accomplishments during this time were many and include taking a team gold at the 1997 World Championships and an overall World Cup title in 1993.
Please note: all quotes in this article are taken from an interview conducted by the author with Kordula Striepecke in April 2014.
For background reading on the subject of elite athletes in the GDR, consider seeking out:
Goldkinder: Die DDR im Spiegel ihres Spitzensports (Leipzig: Forum Verlag, 1998)
Stephen Ungerleeder, Faust’s Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine (Thomas Dunne Books, 2001).