08.06.134:45 AM ET

‘The Diplomat’: Socialism’s Most Beautiful Face

Katarina Witt was a figure-skating champion and the darling of the East German regime. A new ESPN documentary examines her ascent in the symbolically loaded Cold War sports scene.

It’s February 27, 1988, at the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada. A beguiling figure dressed in scarlet and black skates silently out in front of the crowd that has packed into the Saddledome arena to catch the final day of the women’s figure-skating championships. The girl is hauntingly lovely: lips rouged, hair pulled back and fixed with a flamenco flourish. She is skating to Bizet’s Carmen, and she is skating for her future. If she lands her jumps and wows the judges, the chance at a professional career awaits. If she trips or falls, or loses her momentum and lets her confidence falter, she will be sent home to East Germany, and her life as a figure skater will be over. She will be trapped behind the impenetrability of the Iron Curtain, perhaps never to be allowed outside the country again.

The girl, of course, is Katarina Witt, one of the greatest figure skaters of all time—a sports-world superstar sent to the West to represent the supposed glories of communism, even as the German Democratic Republic and its Eastern bloc allies rotted behind the scenes. Her story—from her meteoric rise as a darling of the rink through her glittering Olympic years to her fate in a unified Germany—is traced by the new documentary The Diplomat, airing Tuesday night on ESPN. And yet, in 1988 at Calgary, as Witt embarked upon her final performance as a state-sponsored athlete, the Berlin Wall’s collapse—less than two years away—was as utterly unthinkable as the impending fall of the U.S.S.R. As far as Witt and her fellow East Germans were concerned, they were in Canada to help win the Cold War by bringing home gold to their government.

Katie Baker on a new ESPN documentary that examines Katarina Witt’s ascent in the symbolically loaded Cold War sports scene.

After all, the red East and the capitalist West had been duking it out for decades at the Olympics, where crushing the competition served as a symbolic triumph for an entire political system. “Nowadays people act like sport is completely apolitical—but during the Cold War, East versus West, politics played a big role in sports,” says Egon Krenz, the onetime security-police chief who stepped in to run the Deutsche Demokratische Republik for 46 days after Erich Honecker was ousted by his own Politburo in October 1989. “Our athletes popularized the GDR in countries that didn’t recognize the GDR.” Taking a page from the Soviets, the state poured resources into the pomp and pageantry of athletics, seeking out young talent at a tender age and funneling the most promising children into spartan training programs. Its athletes dominated world championships during the 1980s and were easy to spot—extremely disciplined, incredibly strong. (For many, steroidally so.) They were raised, in the words of Ingo Steuer, one of Witt’s former comrades on the ice and now a renowned skating coach, “to be diplomats in track suits”—extensions of a rigorous ideology, glowing faces of the Marxist-Leninist Vaterland.

And Witt’s visage, with her bright eyes and milkmaid braids, was the loveliest one of all, famously known as the “most beautiful face of socialism.” From the time she was a little girl twirling on skates at the local rink in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now the town of Chemnitz), the East German government identified her as something special, a child to watch. Coach Jutta Müller—whose own daughter, Gaby Seyfert, won two world championships in figure skating—took Witt under her wing, funneling her into a Kinder und Jugendsportschule, the Teutonic equivalent of a Soviet athlete factory, and submitting her to an intense training schedule. Witt thrived under these conditions, blossoming into a figure-skating prodigy. “I loved the competition,” she says in The Diplomat, and Müller “saw the passion I had for the sport ... to be creative, to really want to be in front of an audience and create something special.”

As Witt started racking up the medals—including her first silvers in the 1982 European and World championships and her first gold a year later—she quickly became a media sensation in her homeland. By 1984, as the Sarajevo Winter Olympics loomed, the 18-year-old’s popularity exploded worldwide. Western sportscasters became enamored with her charismatic aura and elfin good looks, flirting with her in front of the cameras and calling her “stunning,” “Katarina the Great,” and “sex on skates.” Her performances on the ice left the crowds cheering in ecstasy—all those elegant double axels, those smooth triple lutzes—and when she narrowly beat out the American favorite, Rosalynn Sumners, for the gold-medal spot, her celebrity status was cemented.

Back home, the GDR government had high expectations for its little Kati. She was plied with privileges—like many of the state’s elite athletes at the time—that set her apart from the rest of the common volk and worked to ensure her ongoing loyalty. She was issued a passport and allowed to travel to America, where she was feted at embassy parties and given the paparazzi treatment. She got to jump ahead on East Germany’s 10-year waiting list for a car (her first auto was a blue Lada from the Stasi pool); she received an apartment, an extension to her parents’ home, holidays abroad. In return, she praised communism, telling politicians in 1987, “Our athletes are often admired abroad and asked what is the secret to our success. The answer lies in our sociality democratic society, the GDR. The future is on our side, the side of socialism.” Behind the scenes, as the 2002 publication of 181 pages from her extensive Stasi file revealed, Witt was a “beneficiary” of the regime, cooperating with the secret police during regular meetings and promising not to defect.

Katarina Witt in “The Diplomat,” airing August 6 on ESPN. (Cherry Sky Films)

The documentary, it should be noted, is not entirely clear on this account. In an interview with The Daily Beast, the film’s directors, Jennifer Arnold and Senain Kheshgi, said they personally perused the public pages of Witt’s file and, according to Kheshgi, “Surprisingly, there was a lot of material in there that was very mundane. It was, ‘Katarina wanted this, she wanted to go here, she had to meet with somebody, somebody met with her,’ recording their conversations. Usually there were just general things in life. Wanting a passport, wanting to get new curtains in her apartment. These were the kinds of things that she was directly communicating with the Stasi on as a beneficiary ... There’s such a slippery slope when you start looking at these categories. Who’s a beneficiary, and who’s a victim?” For her part, Witt has maintained that while she had to meet with her Stasi handlers to answer questions about her life, she never spied for the secret police.

“I was thankful to the system, because I knew I was lucky to be able to be supported in my sport,” Witt says in The Diplomat. “My parents, if they had lived in America, they could have never had the money to pay for the sport. So of course I knew my sport or my career was supported by the state.” Last year, in a piece for Britain’s Daily Mail, Witt wrote, “Looking back, two decades later, it is as if we were living on a different planet, but we never questioned it at the time. The constant control, particularly when it came to traveling abroad, just became a part of my life. ‘We want to protect you,’ was the message ... The rhetoric was all rather comforting in its way. I believed we were a country of fairness and good social values. Would I have wanted to live in another country? A free country? The question never occurred to me. In fact, I probably had even less reason to question than most as I was well treated. Like other leading athletes, I was given rewards for winning. There were financial bonuses, for example, and I was allowed to rent an apartment of my own, even though I was only 19 and not married.”

Yet even as Witt enjoyed the perks of being a favored athlete and a global celebrity, the Stasi secretly monitored her every move. The police bugged her home and the ice-skating rink where she practiced, turned friends and colleagues into informants, and even meddled in her relationships, sending her first boyfriend to a far-off military post so he wouldn’t distract from her training. “The state invested a lot of money in someone when we trained them,” Krenz explains in a chillingly matter-of-fact tone to the filmmakers. “That was, of course, the reason the state wanted people to stay and not go to the West.” The Stasi even got Steuer to monitor Kati’s movements. At age 17, Steuer says, he was called into a clandestine meeting and told to sign an agreement to cooperate with the police. “I only saw the word ‘prison.’ I knew I had to sign quickly to make the situation go away,” he says in the film. “I really just wanted to skate. I mean, I was 17 years old. I was shocked.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Witt described the experience of reading her file—which totaled more than 3,000 pages—and realizing the extent of the state’s surveillance on her. “I was surprised, and I was disappointed, and I felt betrayed. Because I knew I had to meet them, and I knew I was telling them the truth, and for me then to be watched like this, I felt betrayed in a way, because I told them what they needed to know. But it seems not. They wanted to know more. And they wanted to know everything about my life ... like somebody looking through a keyhole and watching everything you do.” She added that while she has never spoken to Steuer directly about his spying, “I have always, through the press, said I have forgiven him, and please don’t forget how young he was.”

While Witt apparently remained in the dark about being shadowed by the Stasi, one aspect of life in the German Democratic Republic was quickly becoming evident as she neared the 1988 Olympics—athletes were not allowed to pursue a professional (read: capitalist) career after their Olympic days waned. But through her travels, Witt had seen her Western counterparts rake in money with lucrative ice shows and starring roles in films, and she wanted to continue her own life on the ice. Her coach, Müller—whose own daughter had longed to turn pro, only to be stymied by the government—approached the authorities and begged them to grant Witt an exception. “That a country would say to young people ‘no’ to their dreams, I guess that was something ... she maybe didn’t want to happen to me,” Witt says, in one of the film’s more emotional moments.

The authorities dithered, but finally agreed that they’d consider letting Witt make money from skating if—and only if—she won the gold in Calgary. It was a daunting feat: only one other female figure skater, the great Sonja Henie, had pulled off double golds in the past half century. And to make matters more tense, Witt had been locked in a bitter rivalry with American Debi Thomas, trading off World Championship titles in ’85, ’86, and ’87. By that fall, both Witt and Thomas had chosen their routines for Calgary—and astoundingly, they both decided to skate to Bizet’s gypsy opera. The battle of the Carmens was on.

Witt skated first, a smoky and smoldering Carmen who beguiled the audience with her powerhouse jumps and sinuous moves. While her program was more conservative, it was technically perfect. (One of the documentary’s highlights is an extended clip of her breathtaking performance.) Thomas—in the lead after the short programs—took to the ice next, but she lacked Witt’s dramatic flair and committed several errors. Even with a last-minute challenge by Canada’s Elizabeth Manley, who skated the exuberant routine of her life for the hometown crowd, Witt knew she had won. “I was just totally relieved,” she told the Beast. When she returned home, the state kept up its side of the deal and allowed her to take on a movie project, Carmen on Ice, to be shot in Spain with her friends and fellow skaters Brian Boitano and Brian Orser. The filming was scheduled for the autumn months of 1989. And so it was that Witt was in rural Andalus, gliding to the strains of a 19th-century opera full of bullfighters and cigarette girls, when the East German regime imploded.

As a dutiful star of the state, Witt seemed confused and adrift as protests engulfed her homeland. In a televised interview with a Western outlet at the time, she looks—for perhaps the first time in her media-saturated life—uncomfortable in front of a camera. She offers up some wooden platitudes about how the state opened up doors of opportunity for her athletic career. "I think a few things are going to change for me, but not so much," she says, somewhat reticently. Meanwhile, back in East Berlin, Krenz was presiding over what he calls in the film "the most dangerous political situation I had in my life" after East Berlin's party chief, Günter Schabowski, had (erroneously) announced that Checkpoint Charlie and all other border points were now open to anyone who wanted to cross. Elated mobs flooded through to the West, and Krenz had to decide whether to send in the tanks to suppress the protesters. Ultimately, he left the gates open. It was the tipping point; less than a month later Krenz and his cronies resigned (Krenz and Schabowski, among others, would later serve prison time for the state's shoot-to-kill policy toward defectors), and the Eastern bloc governments started to topple, starting with Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution in November and December of 1989. Within a year, Yugoslavia would break apart, Romania's revolutionaries would shoot Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, and Mikhail Gorbachev himself would step down, marking the end of the world's long Cold War.

As for Witt, she would go on to prosper as an international performer, coach, Olympic commentator, and even a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. Meanwhile, she weathered accusations at home about her relationship with the Stasi and suspicion over her cars, houses, and other perks as a favored athlete of the state. ("It's OK, because we did something special. We deserved it," she told a media outlet in an interview shortly after the end of communism. Later in the film she explains, "The country had been very proud of you, people had been very proud of you, and within months everyone has turned against you, and you haven't done anything different.")

One of the enduring questions about Witt—in the film, in Germany's media, and in an historical sense—is why she so willingly, and seemingly docilely, went along with a state that spied upon its people and brutally repressed any hint of an opposition. The answer, if there is one, is surely bound up in issues of youth, naiveté, ambition, pride, misinformation, patriotism, courage, and self-interest. Some personalities are clearly capable of, and even drawn to, taking a stand against injustice and totalitarianism despite great personal risk. Others are not—a disposition that may matter little in certain times and places (and indeed may benefit a communal sense of continuity and order), but becomes complicated when systematic abuses of power are involved. Unless one lives under such systems, it is not always clear how a person will act and react.

"I was lucky," Witt says in the film, reflecting on the arc of her career. "I was at the right time, in the right place ... Maybe this is the secret of my life. I just take things the way they are and try to make the best out of it." In her interview with the Beast, she displayed a similarly pragmatic sensibility. When asked to imagine her life if she had failed to win gold in the '88 Games, she replied, "Honestly, I refuse to think if and maybe and when. It turned out the way I dreamed, and I’m lucky about that. It would have been different. It would have been different coming home with a silver medal. And then the Wall came down a year later. Who would have known?"

To filmmaker Jennifer Arnold, “It’s pretty clear [Katarina] did love being famous, and she’s very, very savvy and a very good businesswoman even back then, so it seems like she was able to use the system to make sure she got something out of it for herself.” Arnold also believes that Witt did not know the extent of the state's abuses of power. "At first when we started the film, we thought, oh, she’s a beneficiary of the system. She must have seen that and known that," she said. "And as we got deeper, we found a lot of the athletes had special perks and had special things. You spend eight to 10 hours training on the rink. You’re really kept away from everyday citizens. You’re in this situation where you don’t get a lot of free information. And so Katarina, when we were speaking with her, said she really didn’t know what was going on in the rest of East Germany before the Wall fell.

Adds Senain, “It’s hard to think about that now in this world of information overload. You got the news from your local East German news reporter, which was state-controlled. You didn’t have access to the press internationally. You got a few West German newspapers or articles that had been brought over from the border. But the only time Katarina really got to see anything was when she was traveling, and she was a diplomat in the tracksuit. She was there to make her country look good. She was very guarded, and so were the other athletes when she was out and abroad.”

Should an 18-year-old girl be blamed for being singlemindedly focused on her career and willing to do whatever it took to advance it? What about a 25-year-old young woman whose own future had almost been cut off by her own patrons? What if we're talking about a government that took care of its athletes with special attention because it saw them as precious assets of the state? What if we're talking about a government that had no compunction about massacring defectors and disappearing dissenters and setting up an Orwellian police state? Such are the questions that linger over Witt's legacy and the history of East Germany. They are unlikely to be resolved in a facile way any time soon—which is what makes The Diplomat a worthwhile film.

The Diplomat will air on ESPN at 8 p.m. on August 6, 2013.