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Kordula Striepecke receives her victor's medal at the 1983 GDR Championship in Zeitz (photo: Striepecke archive)

Kordula Striepecke receives her victor’s medal at the 1983 GDR Championship in Zeitz (photo: Striepecke archive)

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. Read More

With today marking the opening of the Rio Olympic Games, it seems an appropriate time to begin a series of posts on the sporting career of an elite athlete trained in the GDR, Ms. Kordula Striepecke, a world-class competitor in canoe slalom.

In the years that have followed the fall of the Berlin Wall the narrative that has emerged around East Germany’s sporting culture has tended to focus on the way in which the state socialist system relentlessly pursued sporting excellence, often at the expense of the health and well-being of the very athletes expected to deliver these results. In my discussions with Ms. Striepecke about her remarkable sporting career, both in the GDR and in the unified German team after 1990, I was interested to see they ways in which her experiences serve to both confirm and challenge the prevailing impressions of what the pursuit of elite sport involved in the German Democratic Republic.

I am grateful to Ms. Striepecke for her willingness to share her story with me and hope that you find it as enjoyable to read as I did to research and write.

Like dreams held by many East German citizens, the one at the centre of this week’s post was also born in front of a television set tuned to a West German channel. It was late summer 1972 and nine-year old Kordula Striepecke was transfixed by images she saw on the TV sitting in the living room of her family’s Erfurt apartment. On the screen were images of the Summer Olympics being held in neighboring West Germany, specifically, the canoe slalom event. As the competitors navigated their way through the white water course with skill and precision, a dream was born: “I immediately joined a club to start paddling and I collected every article I could find about the sport from the East German papers. And the wish to compete at an Olympic Games began to grow inside me.” (from Wendegeschichten nach 20 Jahren Wende / 20. Jahrestag des Mauerfalls by Kordula Striepecke)

Kordula Striepecke standing in front of Progress Erfurt's boat house (photo: Striepecke archive)

Kordula Striepecke standing in front of Progress Erfurt’s boat house (photo: Striepecke archive)

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The images above are taken from what was known as the “Sport Show”, a key element of 8 gymnastics and sport festivals held in the GDR between 1954 and 1987. For readers today, I imagine that these images recall first and foremost the so-called “Mass Games” which have been presented by the North Korean regime in the recent past. These events feature a cast of thousands performing carefully synchronized, highly choreographed displays of gymnastics, acting and music in honour of the hermit kingdom’s “Dear” and “Great” leaders.

While North Korea may be the country most closely associated with “Mass Games” today, it is interesting to note that this artistic medium has roots which extend back to early 19th century Germany and that its traditions were, as the photos above attest, continued on the GDR as well.

To get a sense of what “Mass Games” looked like in the East German context, check out this video below which features clips from the 1977 and 1987 GDR Gymnastics and Sport Festivals in Leipzig. As an added bonus, you’ll get to hear / read the recollections of a participant in one of these Sport Shows; her words give a clear insight into what role the festivals played in the propagation of the GDR’s official ideology.

Excerpt of 2009 film by Anna Hoetjes

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This video of a match report on an GDR Oberliga football match from November 25, 1989 has been making the rounds for a while, and I thought I’d post it here with a translation of the moderation as it’s a nice little window into the social changes taking place in East German at that time.

The game in question between Lokomotive Leipzig, a team typically to be found at the top of the East German table (though not in this year) and BSG Stahl Eisenhüttenstadt, a weak sister of GDR football, at Stahl’s homeground, Ironworkers’ Stadium, just over two weeks after the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9th. Read More

Plastic pin produced for participants in the Spartakiade of the Combat Groups of the Working Class in Halle / Saale in 1973 (photo: Jo Zarth).

Plastic pin produced for participants in the Spartakiade of the Combat Groups of the Working Class in Halle / Saale in 1973 (photo: Jo Zarth).

One of the distinguishing features of state socialism in the GDR was its use of awards, medals and commendations as a means of acknowledging and encouraging its citizenry along the ‘correct path’. Such items were distributed in workplaces, at schools and in all manner of social settings and as a result are still floating about in considerable numbers. In the early years after German unification, these items were everywhere in the former-East, and the seemingly exotic bits of socialist kitsch were eagerly snapped up by tourists as souvenirs. (Indeed, these things were so popular at one point that in the mid-late 90s it was not unusual to encounter knock-off versions for sale at some major tourist attractions like the Reichstag in Berlin.) While most of the object presented here are not particularly rare, they warrant a closer look as they do provide an interesting window into an East German society that has almost completely vanished.

This post presents my collection of such items. I got a few of mine from hawkers set up near the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate or at flea markets in Leipzig and Berlin in the mid-90s, but most were passed on to me by friends clearing out their parents’ attics. As a result, I’m fairly confident that most of my stuff is authentic, but should the eagle-eyed among you spot any fakes in here, please do let me know!

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I’ve amassed a small number of programs from matches involving East German teams over the last number of years. As a fan of the “beautiful game” I naturally gravitated towards this ephemera because of its often attractive design, but a closer examination of these mementos reveals them to be a very good reflection of the state socialist society that produced them.

Program - Stahl Riesa cover

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It must be the grip that winter has had on us here in Toronto, but I recently began to troll around for a seasonally appropriate theme to post on. I quickly decided to write on Oberhof, a small town in the upper reaches of the Thüringian Forest which has achieved a certain profile as a winter sport site. I’d encountered Oberhof in my reading in its role as the training headquarters for many of the GDR’s elite winter sport athletes including its bobsledders, lugers, cross-country skiers, biathletes and ski jumpers, but I had heard that it was a beloved holiday destination as well. However, when I started digging, I was amazed to find the extent to which the history of this small town distilled so many of the developments which characterized GDR-era.

Oberhof in 1980 - clockwise from top left: Rennsteig Hotel, View of Hotel Panorama, ****, View from Rennsteig and "Fritz Heckert" Holiday Hotel.

Oberhof in 1980 – clockwise from top left: Rennsteig Hotel, View of Hotel Panorama, Luisensitz Holiday House, View from Rennsteig and “Fritz Heckert” Holiday Hotel.

Oberhof found its way on to the radar of the East German leadership even before the state itself was founded. This was due in large part to the fact that one of the leader’s of Socialist Unity Party (SED), Walter Ulbricht, had come to know Oberhof during the Weimar period when he had led the German Communist Party in the region. A dedicated exerciser, Ulbricht particularly enjoyed hiking and skiing the area’s trails. When authorities decided to host a Winter Sport Championships in the Soviet Zone of Occupation in January of 1949, Oberhof was selected to host the event, the success of which apparently demonstrated to Ulbricht how sport might be instrumentalized as a means of cementing his and the SED’s popularity. Read More

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