THE WALL, THIRTY YEARS ON

Photo of the Berlin wall by Dogukan Sahin on Unsplash

Most people of my generation cite the images of Nelson Mandela emerging from 20 years of inhuman incarceration as their indelible moment. My parents’ generation would probably talk of Kennedy’s assassination. For me, it is unquestionably the events, 30 years ago this year, that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the freeing from the Soviet yoke of millions of Europeans.

My athletics career had afforded me, by my mid 20s, the opportunity of visiting many of the Eastern Bloc countries (I won my first senior outdoor championship medal in Prague in 1978) as a competitor and a fledgling sports’ administrator. It was in the latter capacity that I went to East Berlin 30 years ago. I stayed at the residence of the British ambassador over the Easter week. 

Midway through Good Friday, he led me into his back garden in the leafy suburbs of that city. Although the discussion about the strategic direction of East German sport was hardly the page-turning stuff of a Le Carre novel, we nonetheless relocated from a warm sitting room into the icy winds of a late winter blast. It was 1988 and the ambassador’s certain knowledge that his residence was riddled with listen devices from top to bottom was not misplaced.

I was in the German Democratic Republic (some of the most draconian and totalitarian nations on the planet always manage to ascribe to themselves ‘democratic’) as the vice-chairman of the UK Sports’ Council. Our mission was to understand a little bit more about the nature of East German sport, which had become a powerhouse in the Olympic Games. They were also keen to understand, amongst other things, the nature of the ‘golden era’ in British athletics and the genesis of the titanic talents of Messrs Thompson, Ovett, Cram and Sanderson, amongst others.

In the European championships of 1986, across the border in Stuttgart, the British team had well-nigh swept the board in individual titles. The 800m gold medal now sits in my collection. This had clearly not gone unnoticed in East Germany and specifically at their centre of excellence in Leipzig.  Our conversation concluded with a short run-through of the itinerary and the people we were to meet, including the senior figure in East German sport. We then returned to the warmth of the house where the conversation for the rest of the evening over supper remained cordial but run of the mill. I was still in hard training in preparation for the Olympic Games later that year in Seoul, South Korea – an event that the Russians and their satellites had already muted boycotting, even though Gorbachev had ushered in the era of Glasnost and Perestroyka. This after all was still the Cold War and barely 50% of the world recognised the diplomatic status of South Korea. After the boycotts in Moscow, and Los Angeles, the landscape had become a little more stable but these were still fragile times for the Olympic movement. 


The following day, I sat enthralled watching the poster child of the fatherland, Katerina Witt, making her first appearance on the ice in her home country, following her second Olympic skating triumph only weeks earlier at the Winter Games in Calgary. At the end of a sublime performance and emotional reunion with her adoring fans, she theatrically threw herself to the ice amidst a tsunami of roses thrown on to her stage. Within moments, the ice was awash with petals.

The next morning I set foot on a long run. I have always loved exploring places I have not been to before. A long run is perfect for that on these occasions. After some 15 minutes, I ran towards a small square where a group of five or six people, some with musical instruments and some hymn sheets, were celebrating a Christian Easter. Before I had fully absorbed the scene, two cars pulled up and from them, half a dozen men in leather jackets broke up this impromptu service and began to manhandle the innocent gathering towards the vehicles. I decided not to linger and, shocked by what I had witnessed, continued to pound the pavements.

Shortly after, I entered a park and only a matter of strides later, was abruptly halted by a wall that indiscriminately blocked the path. I stopped, a little puzzled, and looked up to see an East German soldier from a guard tower watching my every movement, his rifle trained on me. I had, of course, stumbled across the Berlin wall that had now been in place for well over 20 years. As I gingerly retraced my steps, I could hear from across the other side, the bells from many West Berlin churches ringing out to mark this religious day. The contrast could not have been starker or more poignant.

Next day, sitting alongside the ambassador on our way to Liepzig,  I asked him a question I guess he had been asked a thousand times. ‘When does all this end?’ As the green Jaguar purred along the abnormally wide autobahn, reinforced to accommodate tank carrying aircraft, he observed that it would change but probably not ‘in our lifetime’. He was not alone in his diplomatic pessimism. When it did all change, it caught everybody on the hop, including the two major super-powers whose post-war carve-up and foreign policy imperatives had brought about the previous 30 years of stalemate. 

In Leipzig, we were cordially shown around the high performance facility. I remember thinking that the equipment was surprisingly antiquated, the buildings workman-like and austere, and the custodians, suspicious of even the innocuous questions our delegation asked. And not an athlete in sight. In hindsight of course, and as exposed in the Stasi papers shortly after reunification, their industrial scale doping programmes had become an integral part of the honing of young talent. Unfortunately this augmentation to the training regime also masked good coaching practice that was way in advance of the current thinking. I have always instinctively had more sympathy for those athletes caught up in this miserable system with little or no alternative than to subject themselves to those doping programmes than those athletes in so-called liberal democracies, un-coerced, that chose to step beyond the moral boundaries.

The day before I flew home I went to meet an interior minister who also had responsibility for East German sport. My briefing, again in the garden, was bog-standard until I was asked if I would be prepared to ask a question about nuclear armaments. The minister was Egon Krenz, an unassuming but central player in the Honecker regime. Less than a year later, the wall had come down and Krenz became prime minister. After reunification, he served a prison sentence for human rights violations. 

Earlier this year I addressed the German government’s Sports Commission in the Bundestag in Berlin in my capacity as President of the IAAF. After the meeting, I returned to the airport, journeying through a unified Berlin where the old borders have blurred and with them, the human privations of the old order. As I gazed through the windows of the car, I was drawn back to those events 30 years earlier. Easter weekends have never been the same since.

On the 30th anniversary of end of the Cold War it is ironic that the country with stability and prosperity, albeit with some tensions, is Merkel’s Germany and she herself came from the eastern half of a once divided country. Would it be too much to suggest the new zones of political instability are now the United States and Britain ?

A few months ago I also spoke at the European Athletics congress in Prague. Here I was in a city freed 30 years ago.  I observed that we assembled as 51 nations of distinct sporting cultural and political character all free to travel and assemble and in our case share sporting expertise.

It wasn’t always thus and hauntingly, all too recently. Maybe, just maybe our waring politicians in Westminster might take a short walk down history’s memory lane and pause for breath before pulling up the draw bridge.