FIGURE SKATING

FIRE ON THE ICE

East German star Katarina Witt is a consummate flirt who radiates charisma and sexuality

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 2 1988
FIGURE SKATING

FIRE ON THE ICE

East German star Katarina Witt is a consummate flirt who radiates charisma and sexuality

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 2 1988

FIRE ON THE ICE

FIGURE SKATING

East German star Katarina Witt is a consummate flirt who radiates charisma and sexuality

The morning practice at the Küchwald arena in Karl Marx Stadt, East Germany, is well under way when Katarina Witt emerges from her dressing room and steps onto the ice. “It’s one of those days when nothing is working,” she mutters, cursing a broken skate lace. Dressed in a yellow sweat suit, her chestnut hair pulled into a ponytail, the 22-year-old figure skater looks like the fresh-faced girl next door, waiting to be coaxed out of a bad mood. She does not look like a woman who inspires hundreds of strangers to send her marriage proposals through the mail or a New York cosmetic firm to offer a $1million contract. But then the opening strains of a George Gershwin melody are piped through the arena, and Witt moves into her starting position. On cue, she flashes the coquettish smile that has become her trademark. In motion, she is fluid, alluring and inviting. In moments she has wiped the image of the petulant girl out of her audience’s mind and replaced it with the beguiling and bewitching star performer who has dominated female figure skating for the past four years.

Witt’s uncanny ability to mesmerize works its magic on audiences and judges alike. While she is not a great technical skater, she has won three out of the past four world figure skating titles, as well as the gold medal at the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984.

Witt is the greatest female recordsetter since American skater Peggy Fleming, who won three consecutive world championships in the 1960s.

Part of Witt’s secret is that she intensifies her performance voltage when the spotlight turns her way. At the world championships in Cincinnati last March, she had to take the ice just

after her closest competitor and defending champion, American Debi Thomas, had skated an excellent long program. “I had to do the best routine of my life to win,” says Witt. “And I did.” In fact, it was stunningly complex, including three different triple jumps and a pair of double Axels. The victory was made even sweeter by the coolness that exists between Witt and Thomas. “Debi and I are not close,” says Witt. “We do not talk much, and it is hard to get along.” Heading into the Olympics, Witt has added her own personal pressure to the regular competitive load: she has decided to retire at the end of this season to study acting, and she wants to mark her exit with an Olympic triumph. Says Witt: “More than anything, I want to retire a champion.”

In the eyes of many East Germans, there may never be another star as captivating as Katarina Witt. Jutta Müller, a legendary East German skating coach, has been Witt’s personal instructor for the past 13 years. Said Müller: “Kati knows that she carries all of her country’s hopes when she steps on the ice.” Described by another East German coach as “a national institution,” Witt is treated with great reverence. Although the average East German waits 10 years for an apartment and the chance to buy a car, at 22, Witt has both her own apartment in Karl Marx Stadt and a Russianmade Lada sedan. Her televised appearances in competitions attract the highest ratings of any program in her country, and the tens of thousands of letters she receives annually include extraordinary expressions of gratitude. Says Bernd Egert, head coach of the Karl Marx Stadt sports club, where Witt both went to school and learned to skate: “Kati often gets letters from children crediting her

with their improvement in subjects such as mathematics and essay writing. They thank her for the inspiration to work harder.”

Witt, with her Western mannerisms and style of dress, might be considered an unlikely source of inspiration for Communist youth. Off the ice, she is happiest on the rare occasions she is allowed to go to dance clubs with friends, where the management invariably agrees to play her favorite records by Madonna and British rocker Nick Kershaw. She is fluent in English, wears a stylish acid-stained denim jacket and jeans bought in the United States last year and says that her only complaint about her Lada is that “I cannot drive as fast as I would like.” She is generally good-natured, but because of her status as her country’s most beloved athlete, she admits, “I am used to getting my way and, I must say, I like that. There are times when I get annoyed very easily.”

On the ice, Witt is a consummate flirt who radiates charisma and sexuality.

Under the direction of Müller, she disdains the regal strains of German classical music in favor of fluffier concoctions by such American composers as Glenn Miller and Gershwin. Her routines have included a fiery flamenco performance and a titillating turn as a belly dancer, dressed in a spangled and appropriately skimpy outfit. Often an indifferent performer in pracuce,

Witt comes alive in front of an audience. “I draw my strength from being in front of a crowd because I feel at one with them,” she says. In Cincinnati last year, her rapport with the American crowd provoked so many standing ovations during practice sessions that Debi Thomas’s coach, Alex McGowan, complained that Witt was “milking the crowd” in order to draw attention away from American skaters. But, responded former Canadian skating champion Toller Cranston: “How can you possibly be critical of anyone who looks as gorgeous as Katarina Witt?”

The most startling thing about Witt is not her flamboyance, but the fact that it was nurtured, groomed and fine-tuned by one of the world’s most demanding sports development systems. When conjuring up an image of a dedicated East German athlete, most North Americans would not think of Witt. But she is undeniably a carefully cultivated product of that system. With the exception of the Soviet Union, East Germany routinely wins more medals in Olympic competitions than any

other country. Winning in international sports is high on East Germany’s national priority list. The state is exceedingly methodical in identifying potential champions at an early age and streaming them into specific sports. National team members in all areas are selected for special attention as early as five years of age, based on a painstaking study of their coordination, mental aptitude and genetic makeup. As head coach at the Karl Marx Stadt club, one of the country’s four major govern-

ment-sponsored sports clubs and schools, Egert is deeply involved in choosing future athletes. “A key factor in choosing our skaters is a study of their parents,” says Egert. “If the parents are too tall or have a tendency to be naturally heavy, these qualities mean the children are not suited for skating.”

Witt, whose parents were both of medium size and build, was selected for the school’s intensive program when she was 5. Egert, who was then a junior instructor at the school, remembers the young girl. “She was obviously a natural from the first time she put on skates,” he says. “She took to the ice like a duck to water.” Witt herself has a strong memory of her first time on skates. “It was very wet along the sides where the ice-making machine had just been,” she recalls. “But then I made my way out to the middle of the ice, and I

remember thinking, ‘This is for me.’ ”

Once she had been chosen for the accelerated program, Witt, like other young skaters, spent up to four hours a day training on ice, in addition to her regular school studies. The hours made it difficult for her to have any home life. Witt was often gone from 7 o’clock in the morning until dinnertime and saw more of her coaches than her parents. “In many ways, I am closer to Jutta than anyone,” she says. Now she sees her mother and father “when I can” but remains in close contact with her brother, Axel, 25, a former soccer player who is married to onetime skating champion Anett Pötzch. Still, Witt has few close friends. “There has never been much time,” she says, “for anything other than practice and competition.”

Few parents of talented athletes in the East German system actually complain about the strain on their children or their family life. Says head coach Egert: “There can be nothing greater than producing a child who brings honor to our country.” Once their daughter was chosen for the intensive training program, Witt’s parents knew that she was on the only possible route to the glory of winning a spot on the country’s national team. When asked if the sports club would ever promote a promising athlete from a regular school into the national team program, Egert says: “This is a business, and we do everything with a reason. Once we have made our selections, there is no room to reconsider.”

Egert was professionally trained for his role. Coaches and club directors must pass a three-year coaching course that covers everything from biophysics to computer programming. And like all other East German coaches, he is judged on results. His salary is tied to the number of national team members and international medal winners his club produces. Although the East German government will not give details of the compensation system, Egert says, “Much of my income at this club is tied in to Kati and how well she does.” Witt is acutely aware of the benefits the system has brought both her and those around her and rejects Western charges that the process is dehumanizing. “Some North Americans criticize the way we work, but over there, few people could afford the training I have been given,” she says. “Here, all you need is talent and desire.” Witt’s own talent was so evident that she was assigned the famed Müller as her coach

when she was only 9. Müller, now 58, has become known over the course of a 33-year career as a tiny and terrifying figure who produces international champions at an unprecedented rate. Since she began coaching in 1955 after a stint as a championship skater, Müller has wheedled, cajoled and browbeaten a succession of skaters to more than 50 international medals. “Skating is everything to me,” she says-and she has often proven her dedication. When she broke a leg in an accident several years ago, Müller insisted on being taken to Witt’s daily workouts by ambulance and watched from a stretcher. She expects the same zeal of others and shows no patience for errors. Says one member of the Karl Marx Stadt club staff: “There is a great sigh of relief when we know she will be away for a while.”

Witt, the often-pampered star, and Müller, her everdemanding mentor, have a remarkably affectionate relationship. Müller oversees every detail of Witt’s professional life and acts as confidante for any private worries. “Kati has a natural warmth that shines from her,” says Müller. In fact, it was Müller who taught Witt how to let that warmth shine through in her performances. Along with her major tasks of choreographing Witt’s routines and choosing her costumes and music,

Müller spends countless hours fussing over her star’s makeup, coiffure and personal style. As one small trick to heighten the intimacy between the crowd and the performer, Müller taught Witt to choose one male face in the audience at the start of a routine and play to him. It has now become a habit.

Such tactics have led some critics to suggest that Witt’s string of successes are proof that the judges in figure skating may choose style over technical substance. The judging system in the sport is notoriously political, and the East Bloc and Western countries frequently accuse each other of favoring their own skaters. Some Western experts feel that Witt has been marked too generously. “Her figures are known to be quite awful, but they have been over-marked since her first Olympics,” says Peter Dunfield, who with his wife, Sonya, coaches Canadian skater Elizabeth Manley, who placed fourth at last year’s world championships. He adds: “Witt is just very pleasing on the ice. She can be very sexy, dignified without any snobbishness, and she

has the fine, delicate line of a regal person.” In the rigidly graded and often tedious compulsory figures category, judges have never marked Witt well. Figures competition involves completing a series of circles, turns and figure eights, which count for 30 per cent of the total mark. Says Witt, wrinkling her nose: “I absolutely despise them.” She fares better in the compulsory short program, which counts for 20 per cent of the mark and allows skaters to present set elements such as

double loop jumps and double Axels in their own fashion. But where Witt excels is in the four-minute-long freestyle or long program, worth 50 per cent of the mark. Skaters are allowed to exercise their artistic interpretations to the fullest, with routines set to music of their own choosing. Witt is enormously quick and graceful and has a dancer’s sense of rhythm. The long program is always the last and most important part of the competition, and as Dunfield says: “Under pressure, this girl comes through. Witt is the most consistent of any single woman skater and has extreme

coolness. It means that we have to try harder things if we are going to break her.”

Dunfield’s own charge, Ottawa skater Manley, makes up for her lack of artistry with her technical brilliance. Only five feet tall, Manley and her coaches are acutely aware that Witt is five inches taller. “She has an advantage in being taller than many other figure skaters, and she is very well built,” says Dunfield. “Elizabeth has to stretch every molecule of herself on the ice, but Witt can make it with only a Mona Lisa smile.” But Witt has also worked extremely hard to improve her technical performance. Despite her distaste for practising, she routinely spends 11 months a year and up to six hours a day on the ice. As well, she often works out for another three hours daily and studies music, ballet and choreography. Says Doug Leigh, coach of Canadian male skating champion Brian Orser: “Katarina is not extraordinary technically, but she knows what her limits are. She has a very clean line, great flow, unique spins and nice footwork.” Witt is also applying a new sense of dedication to her training regimen. “As she nears the end of her career,” says Müller, “Kati is showing a sense of discipline that she definitely did not have as a teenager.”

Still, Witt admits her newfound work ethic is largely motivated by the knowledge that the end is near. After 17 years of intense training, she says, “I want to sleep late more often and sometimes eat foods that are not good for me.” She also admits that she is reluctant to give up the benefits that her skating success has brought her. “I like being famous,” she says. “I like to go to restaurants where they treat me well because they know who I am.” A gold medal in Calgary would help Witt stay at the top. After the Olympics she plans to take a yearlong acting course in East Berlin in hopes of launching her new career in a more typically star-struck business: the movies. “I do not want people to come up to me one day and say, ‘Aren’t you that skater who used to be famous?’ ” says Witt. “I am, and I will be, much more than that.” One way or another, East Germany’s most luminous star plans to keep shining brightly for many years to come.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

ANN WALMSLEY

SHAFFIN SHARIFF