clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

EAST/WEST MEET BUT CAN'T GET TOGETHER

FOR ONE OF the first times since the fall of the Berlin Wall - and, with it, the collapse of the physical and political barriers between the peoples of Germany - athletes from West and East Germany are competing in Salt Lake this weekend in the United States Olympic Cub competition in gymnastics and boxing.

So, how are they getting along? Are they tossing down steins together at Siegreid's Delicatessen? Are they strolling arm-in-arm down State Strasse?Well, not exactly.

"You have to understand," said Dieter Hoffman, the chief coach of East Germany's men's gymnastics team, "that 40 years apart is a long time.

"There's no more Wall there - but still there's separation."

In many ways, he says - socially, and athletically.

"There is a feeling in East Germany that we are not socially prepared to unite with West Germany, that there is a first- and second-class feeeling," said Hoffman through an interpreter.

And athletically?

Now the coach smiled.

"In sport, it's different," he said.

English translation: No. 2 is No. 1.

Or, West Germany can't carry East Germany's clipboards.

Especially not in gymnastics.

"They can probably make use of us there," said Hoffman. "The (national gymnastics) team will essentially be East Germany anyway, for a long time. We have silver medal from last world championship. The best West German was 12th."

Apprised of this statement, a West German delegation judge, Rita Schuh, said, "Oh, they're not that much better . . . the training situation is changing . . . they're not as superior as they were."

Did anyone say BYU-Utah in German? Or Notre Dame-USC? Or Republicans-Democrats? Or Yankees-Dodgers? Or Lakers-Celtics?

Oppression can obviously crumble over time.

But rivalries?.

"It's obvious that the delegations are still very separate," observed University of Utah gymnastics coach, and former U.S. national coach, Greg Marsden as he watched the two Germanies work out this week.

That separateness has also been obvious by the spending power of the West and East German marks, respectively, as the gymnasts, boxers and officials from Germany have internationalized the local economy this past week.

"The West Germans are able to buy maybe 10 times as much (as the East Germans)," said a volunteer translator working for the Utah Sports Foundation.

Still, East and West do speak the same language, and while there has been a distinct competitiveness between the two this week, no one from either side has been heard to express unhappiness over last winter's historic freedom movement that riddled the iron curtain and has brought about the possibility of a reunited Germany.

"Everyone's very happy in general," said Schuh. "It's just that there are a lot of things to be worked out and it's too early to tell what will happen. This is one of the first competitions we've been at together. It's new for us. We'll develop a relationship, but it will take time."

"Both sides are still kind of hanging back," said Hoffman. "There is still hesitancy, both ways."

Sylvio Kroll, a top-ranking East German gymnast who is one of the favorites in today's men's competition in the Salt Palace, said, "In all of the things that have happened in Germany, sports has become relatively unimportant. We're still going to have to work out where it fits in exactly."

In the 40-plus years that the country was divided, East Germany placed a decidedly higher priority on sports, particularly individual sports, and turned itself into one of the top two or three - with the Soviets and the U.S. - sporting nations in the world.

West Germany's emphasis, in the meantime, wasn't been too shabby, either, just not as overall impressive as its neighbors over the wall - although in team sports (like soccer, for example), it has fared far better.

Now, the twain are meeting.

Sort of.

Freedom, a terrific thing, means you're free to root for, and be partial to, whomever and whatever you want, without fear of repercussion or reprisal.

As the Germans are finding out.

Before too long, they may be decorating their car's bumpers with "My favorite teams are East Germany and whoever is playing the West Germans." Or vice versa.

The Wall is down, the rivalry may just be heating up.