Katarina Witt's Story a Tale of Individual Excellence and Cold War Symbolism

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2013

MONACO - MAY 20:  Katarina Witt poses at the Laureus World Sports Awards held at the Grimaldi Forum on May 20, 2003 in Monaco. (Photo by David Cannon/Laureus via Getty Images)
David Cannon/Getty Images

Katarina Witt was once the face of socialism. Or, to put it the way Time Magazine did at the peak of her popularity, Witt was the "most beautiful face of socialism," per Lorraine McBride of the Telegraph.

She also happened to be one of the greatest figure skaters in modern history. As a competitor for East Germany during the 1980s, Witt captivated the world with her combination of grace, style and sometimes risque outfits. During a time in the world where tensions were high and the world felt on the precipice of nuclear downfall at any minute, the moments where Witt was on the rink (nearly) melted away all the cynicism, hatred and fear.  

She was the outlier. She was proof that not all East German athletes were these rigid, faceless drones built via laboratory chemicals. She was both accepted and reviled in the United States. Hers was a story of multitudes, of a career being bankrolled by the same people who were enacting social injustices on a daily basis.

Can you reconcile Witt's grace and beauty without thinking about what her prominence represents? That was the question that vexed folks around the world in the 1980s. And it's the narrative directors Jennifer Arnold and Senain Kheshgi will try to tell in The Diplomat, the latest documentary in ESPN's "Nine for IX" series that will air Tuesday evening.   

The film is set around Witt's story and how she fits into that narrative, but it's nearly impossible to tell that tale without going into the world's social backdrop at the time. 

From roughly 1945 to 1991, the United States and the USSR engaged in one of the tensest standoffs in world history. Later dubbed the Cold War, the period of tension left the world at a standstill from the end of World War II almost the entire way through the abolition of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Though we know now that the two sides never went into active combat against one another, the 20/20 hindsight was not available to citizens during that period. There were fits and starts in the war, cooling periods of relative silence before an eventual re-awakening. It was like two mortal high school enemies who think everything is fine between one another until running into each other at a class reunion—only with millions of lives and the fate of the world at stake.

Witt's upshot to fame coincided with both that period's tensest times and the fall of a country she was once the face of.

Born to a physiotherapist mother and farmer father in East Germany in 1965, Witt was already a prodigy before her 10th birthday. Spied on by the East German government throughout her childhood, Witt recounted for The Daily Mail in 2012 just how early the government had pegged her for stardom.

"She’s eight years old and she has lots of talent," read her Stasi files, which Witt requested to see later in live. The Stasi was East Germany's intelligence agency.

Her training didn't begin until four years later in 1977, but by 1979 she was already competing in major championships and showing off the promise her government once saw. Soon she was East Germany's top skater far and away, enough to make her the country's greatest hope coming into the 1984 Winter Olympics in Yugoslavia.

During this period, the tensions between the United States and the Soviets were again on the rise, as their silent diplomacy started going down the drain. Both sides were investing heavily in nuclear armament, and found themselves interlocked in other nations' battles. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the United States Grenada in 1983, both actions that left the world waiting for the next shoe to drop.

The political tensions unsurprisingly spilled over into the sporting world. The United States infamously boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, leaving the 1984 Winter Games as the first time the two countries would compete against one another since Jimmy Carter's controversial decision. (The Soviets would later boycott the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles in response.)

And perhaps the most intriguing battle set for those 1984 Winter Olympics was to be had on the rink—just not hockey this time around. Rosalynn Sumners, a World champion, represented the United States' best chance at skating gold. For the Soviets, their hopes rested on Witt.

In one of the closest figure-skating races in history at that time, Witt prevailed. But unlike most of her contemporaries, Witt was not reviled for her victory. She was looked at as almost a Western athlete, beaming for the camera in her moment of triumph and being referred to as "sex on skates," per The Daily Beast's Katie Baker.

This was not your typical East German athlete.

Had she been allowed and the tensions not been so high, it's very likely she would have been a crossover star—not unlike your Maria Sharapovas today. She had a face and a personality made for cereal boxes and commercials. However, it was clear the East German government knew what a commodity they had.

"They were able to gain status by being part of this ministry and being groomed by this ministry," Kheshgi said, via ESPN. "Katarina was one of the most important assets the country had. She was able to transcend their borders—and not only as an athlete, but as a brand for the country."

Between Olympiads, Witt went on to add to her medals collection. She won three more World championship medals (two gold, one silver) and was the European champion three straight times heading into the 1988 Winter Olympics in Canada.

Still one of the world's most famous athletes, Witt was again facing political unrest on the precipice of an athletic triumph. Only instead of the tensions being between the Soviets and United States, her home country of East Germany was the place on the precipice of a downfall. Progressive thinking had begun making its way into the country, cooling the tensions between the two world powers but also setting up internal strife in East Germany.

The Berlin Wall was less than two years away from falling. But, at the time, there was real fear for Witt's freedom. 

"I remember at the Olympics in '88, Katarina had the pressure of like, 'If I don't win the Olympics again, I might not be let out of this country anymore,'" Brian Boitano told the filmmakers, per ESPN

But like she did many times throughout her career, Witt again triumphed. She won the overall program, her second consecutive Olympic gold—a move that would open up another stream of avenues for the young skater. She was the representative of East Germany, living proof in the government's eyes that communism could not only succeed but do so without the rigid prism with which so many saw it.

Just years later, though, the government she once represented collapsed. The wall came down, the Soviet Union dissolved and the world took a deep exhale as the Cold War finally came to a close. She would go on to take advantage of her Western fame by posing in Playboy, and even in some acting roles. It was a move that understandably caused some controversy back home. 

Now no longer a symbol of an entire government, Witt has shared the same fate as many Olympic athletes. Younger fans no longer understand what she once meant to the sporting world—to the world in general. She was the young woman who used her skills, savvy and, yes, her looks to parlay herself to one of the highest levels of fame, doing so while being the representative of an oppressive government. 

Who does that make Katarina Witt? Tuesday night we'll get to relive one of these moments and make another judgement for ourselves.


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