ERLIN — East Germany may be gone, but its sports
system is being resurrected.
The systematic doping of athletes appears to have ended, as
has the effort to use sports to prove that communism is
superior to capitalism. But the centrally controlled sport
school system, condemned after East Germany's collapse, is now
quietly becoming the model for a reunited Germany.
In a country where reunification largely meant
transplanting Western ideas eastward, the sports system is a
striking example of the opposite.
"I knew right away that these elite schools must be spread
across the entire reunified Germany," said Manfred von
Richthofen, president of the German Sports Federation. Though
from the West, von Richthofen is a longtime admirer of the
aggressive East German approach to developing talent and a
leader of the effort to adopt it nationwide.
The reason is simple: during its brief lifetime, East
Germany won more Olympic medals per capita than any other
country of significant size.
Now, after a long effort to convince German politicians
that the Eastern sports system has been cleansed of ideology,
state police and drugs, the sports schools receive about $1
billion in government financing annually.
The money supports a systematic process of identifying and
cultivating talent that is the heart of the German model. In
communist times, school-age children were evaluated annually
to gauge their athletic potential. The most promising were
whisked off to sport schools, where nearly 12,000 student
athletes, some as young as 5, trained up to 40 hours a
Testing and recruitment in the schools are no longer
mandatory, and scouts now find talent at Germany's 87,000
sports clubs, to which half of all children belong. Those who
stand out are strongly encouraged to transfer to a sports
school. Some sports, like women's gymnastics, recruit and
begin training in third grade. Others, like weight lifting and
rowing, begin as late as 10th grade.
The Werner Seelenbinder School in eastern Berlin, a large
complex of dormitories and sports halls, is the largest school
in the system. It has produced more Olympic medalists than
have many countries.
Under the East German system, the schools were under the
control of the state sports and military departments. After
reunification, the schools were transferred to the education
ministry and the top school officials were replaced. For
several years, the schools were largely run like all the other
schools in Germany.
In the gymnastics center at the Seelenbinder School, Katja
Abel, 19, worked this summer on her balance beam routine under
the watchful eye of her trainer. She is training 30 hours a
week to prepare for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
"You have to focus your life on the sport," Abel said.
Asked what comes after Athens, she appeared stumped. "I don't
really know," she answered hesitantly. "My whole life is
Nearby, a group of 9-year-olds practiced leaps and splits
with earnest intent. Their coach, Bernd Metzner, scolded
several of the girls to tears with his brusque style. "We've
got a performance on Tuesday," he said later, "and some of the
girls just aren't ready."
They are among the 1,200 students at the Seelenbinder
School, all of whom had to survive tough entrance competitions
to enroll. The sports schools, as part of the public school
system, are free; if students live on campus, as about 20
percent do, their parents are asked to pay part of the housing
Concerted efforts by German sports officials, armed with a
1995 study that showed early emphasis on sports was not
detrimental to a child's development, persuaded the government
to permit three schools in eastern Berlin to reinstate elite
sport training as a test. Impressed with the results, the
government agreed to finance the spread of the system
nationwide. It is now made up of 21 former East German schools
and 14 in western Germany.
The schools all function similarly, but while those in the
eastern part of the country train athletes in a wide range of
sports, those in western Germany tend to be smaller and focus
on one sport. German sports officials hope to expand to a
total of 45 or 50 schools within five years.
The budding athletes must fulfill the same academic
requirements as other German students, but classes are
organized around their training schedules. By eighth grade,
when students are away at camps and competitions for as many
as 100 days a year, the schools do everything they can to
accommodate their schedules. Teachers travel with the
students, and the schools offer private tutors to help them
make up missed work. The students are also allowed to take
classes and exams over the Internet.
The investment in the system has already paid off. Germany
won more medals than any country at the 2002 Winter Olympics
in Salt Lake City. While only a third of the athletes on the
German Olympic team were from the elite sports schools, they
won more than 80 percent of the German medals. In Sydney,
Australia, graduates of the Seelenbinder School alone won 10
medals, 4 of them gold. Germany came in fifth in the medal
totals by country, and the goal for Athens is to be among the
The United States Olympic Committee has taken note of
Germany's surge. "There is no question that there has been a
dramatic increase by the Germans," Mike Moran, a spokesman,
said. But he sees no reason to change the American approach,
which is to rely on private financing and to use no formal
system to identify potential talent. "As proud as the Germans
may be of what they did in Salt Lake," Moran said, "we were
only one medal behind them."
Other countries are taking a more active approach.
Australia has established a talent identification program that
draws on the former East German model, including talent
searches that involve mass screenings at schools.
The worst element of the East German system, denounced
worldwide, was the systematic doping of athletes, even very
young ones. In order to bury that legacy, the German
government recently inaugurated a National Anti-Doping Agency.
The government has also agreed to create a fund by the end of
this year to compensate East German doping victims. For von
Richthofen, doping is no longer an issue. "We've made a clean
table," he said.
Other international sports officials agree. Nonetheless,
most of the coaches at the eastern schools have retained their
old jobs. Ulf Dalhöfer, who has been a gymnastics coach since
1969, remembers how steroid pills were passed out as "vitamin"
pills at breakfast.
He says steroids have rightly been banned, but he is still
nostalgic about the system he helped build. "We would
definitely be No. 1 in Athens if we were still East Germany,"
he said with a hint of pride in his voice. "And it's not just
doping. The secret recipe was the focus, the
The carrots that the East German government could dangle in
front of budding athletes to encourage hard work are
unimpressive today. Even Katarina Witt, perhaps the most
famous East German sports star, had to win several Olympic
gold medals before she received a Volkswagen
Golf (although she was allowed to specify, according to state
police files, that it should be bright red).
With the opportunities and distractions of a wealthy market
economy, officials fear that it will be increasingly difficult
to attract and encourage athletic talent. "We're losing them
to the discos," said Armin Baumert, the German Sports
Federation official in charge of developing the schools.
But there are plenty of young athletes eager to take their
place. At an awards banquet at the Seelenbinder School, the
headmaster called up 57 student athletes from his school who
are either the best in Germany or among the best in the world.
The ceremony was earnest and perfunctory. Then the students
briefly enjoyed a fruit buffet before heading out for their
afternoon training. The thumping beat of the Queen song "We
Will Rock You" followed them out the