Standing Tall in Germany
"I knew they were going for Robert," says Kennedy, 25, of Lake Placid, N.Y., who blocked a stairway to keep the skinheads from following Pipkins and three other teammates as they raced for the street. "I thought I would slow them down. I had my arm around one guy's neck when all of them started pounding on me. When they were done, they said, 'Welcome to Germany.' "
The scene on Oct. 29 seemed straight out of a World War II movie: a multiethnic platoon of Yanks vs. Nazi swine. But this was 1993, and Germans and Americans alike were shocked when they learned that the luge team had been threatened and Kennedy attacked in the bucolic eastern German village of Oberhof, where the U.S. luge team was winding down a week of training. Though the incident was only the most recent of nearly 4,800 violent acts committed by German right-wing extremists since 1991—and the goons came not from Oberhof, but from nearby Suhl, an industrial sink of about 50,000 that is troubled by high unemployment and social malaise—this was the first time skinheads had beaten up on Americans.
Ordinarily, the U.S. team would have been in the sack by 10:30 p.m. in anticipation of a 7 a.m. wakeup call. But on this occasion they didn't have to be back on their sleds, hurtling feet first down the icy luge run at 75 mph, until 10:30 the next morning. Besides, there was reason to celebrate: It was the 23rd birthday of Chris Thorpe, a luger from Marquette, Mich.
The Americans put on their navy-blue fleece jackets and went over to the Kurpark-Klause disco, close to their hotel. Entering the bar they spotted a skinhead sitting with a girlfriend. "I didn't like the look of the guy when I saw him," says Gordy Sheer, 22, of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., who is Jewish. "He had swastikas on his shirt and jacket. Just the sight of the emblems made me sick to my stomach because I am intimately familiar with the childhood stories of Germans sweeping Jews out of their homes and into the camps. The skinhead walked by our table on the way to the bathroom and stuck out his chest in a Superman-like pose to show us his shirt. Robert and I followed him into the bathroom and asked him if there was a problem." There wasn't—yet.
The skinhead rejoined his girlfriend and whispered in her ear. She disappeared, the team thinks, to summon others. About 15 minutes later, three more skinheads walked in. At the same time, a round of free drinks magically appeared on the lugers' table. At this point, Sheer left. He went back to his hotel and barricaded his door.
As the number of skinheads increased, the remaining lugers were advised by a German at the bar to run, and they started to sprint up a long outside stairway that led to the street. About halfway up, with his teammates ahead of him, Kennedy turned and confronted the pursuers. "There were 15 guys in the group," he says, "and at one point or another everyone got a hit in." It took five minutes, Kennedy estimates, before he could break free.
"It all happened so quickly," says Pipkins. "It was 10 minutes or so before I even realized Duncan wasn't with us." Pipkins and the other lugers were about to return to the bar from the hotel when Duncan arrived. "He was bleeding, moaning and groaning when we laid him out on the floor in the lobby," says Pipkins, who has roomed with Kennedy for two years. "When I saw him, I felt guilty because I knew they were after me. He risked his life to save mine, and it's emotionally tough to swallow that he took my beating."
The lugers returned to the bar with 15 policemen to identify the culprits and found them, now 30 strong, brazenly bellied up to the bar. "When I went back to identify them," says Kennedy, "I felt that they now wanted to kill me as well as Robert. It was also apparent that the cops were not in control."
It is still not altogether clear who is in control. The mayor of Oberhof apologized profusely the next day, but at about the same time, four of the five ID'd goons were released by Suhl police. The one man they held was already wanted for previous offenses. All five reportedly will face charges in court later. The lugers left under police guard for a new training site in Igls, Austria, within 15 hours of the incident. Despite reports to the contrary, they plan to return to Oberhof for World Cup racing in January.
"For a few days I hurt everywhere and couldn't train to potential," says Kennedy, who sustained bruises but no breaks, "but I'll go back there to race, because this is my job, my life, and no punk with a lousy haircut is going to stand in my way."
JOEL STRATTE-McCLURE in Igls and JOANNE FOWLER in Oberhof