On Thin Ice Back at Home, Katarina Witt Tours the U.s.

updated 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Katarina the Great, as she is known in East Germany, is looking forward to taking her figure skating show on the North American road with fellow Olympian Brian Boitano starting April 15. But today she is not feeling so great. Her cherry-red Volkswagen Golf is stuck in traffic on East Berlin's Friedrichstrasse, and she doesn't like it one bit. Impatiently the world-renowned skater punches the numbers on her car phone to get through to a friend in West Berlin. Over and over again she dials, to no avail. "Blocked lines," she fumes. "In this country, everything is going crazy-even the telephone!"

For Witt, 24, perhaps the most celebrated Communist-bloc athlete since Nadia Comaneci, the world is cracking up. Until last fall she enjoyed fame from back-to-back Olympic victories in '84 and '88, material comforts beyond most East Germans' dreams and the adoration of her countrymen. But now, as her nation rushes toward reunification with West Germany, Katarina has gone from poster girl to something of a pariah. Almost overnight, Witt became a champion without honor in her own land—a convenient symbol of Communist abuses that long-oppressed East Germans have finally risen up against.

It was while she was in Spain last November, filming the HBO movie Carmen on Ice with fellow gold medalist Boitano, that Witt learned the Berlin Wall had fallen—and with it the Communist hierarchy that had granted her a place of privilege. Friends called to tell her that newly outspoken East Germans were venting their pent-up anger on the country's pampered athletes. Some stars were being booed in public. Others had their cars vandalized.

Returning home that month, Witt was greeted by a chorus of disapproval on TV talk shows and in letters to newspapers. Why, critics wanted to know, had she been allocated a four-room apartment in East Berlin when families with children were crammed into two or three rooms? Why had she been given hidden bonuses amounting to $3,725 within one three-month period in 1988, while schoolteachers were earning $90 a month? Were ordinary people "so much worse" than Witt? one letter writer to an East Berlin paper demanded to know.

Witt was startled by such criticism, which she considers unjust. She confirms that her special status as an Olympic champion enabled her at 19 to obtain a coveted blue Soviet-made Lada automobile and her own one-room apartment in her home city of Karl-Marx-Stadt, a grim industrial hub about 125 miles south of Berlin. She acknowledges also that in the last two years she has acquired the Volkswagen, the flat in East Berlin and a woodland bungalow 40 miles north of the city. (The country retreat is filled with snapshots of her boyfriend, rock drummer Ingo Pohlitz, 27.) But then, her income has been supplemented by professional skating in the West. And except for a mauve Porsche recently loaned to her by the West German manufacturer, such perquisites "were not presents," she insists. "I had to pay for them."

She bristles at any intimation that her gains are ill-gotten. "Okay, if you do something special, you get paid," she says in American-accented English. "Nobody in the whole world does anything for nothing. Compared with West German or American standards, what I got was very little. But I was satisfied. Now I feel I'm always having to make excuses.

"Was it wrong for me to have won those gold medals and be admired by the whole world?" she asks. "I trained and worked so hard to give the public joy. And now this. I know it is a time of frustration and uncertainty. And I can understand those people who feel they are not paid enough. But it is wrong for them to put the blame on athletes."

Sympathy for athletes is not surprising from Witt. She was reared in Karl-Marx-Stadt, where her father, Manfred, is an official at an agricultural collective and her mother, Käte, is a physiotherapist. Witt might be there still, had she not strapped on skates one day when she was 5. At age 10, she became a student of East Germany's famous coach Jutta Müller.

For Müller, whom Katarina came to consider a second mother, figure skating was not merely a matter of athletic leaps and spins; it was also about entertainment, and Müller was Katarina's Pygmalion. She was the one who taught Katarina how to apply mascara and how to show off her come-hither smile and striking figure. Müller also taught her to work the crowd by playing characters such as a Hungarian peasant bride or an Arabian belly dancer. For Katarina, up to seven hours of daily practice was a labor of love. "The skating was never hard work," she says. "I always enjoyed it, even on weekends when other kids were being taken off for treats."

A Communist Party member like her father, Witt missed few opportunities to extol the system that helped make her a star. Proud to be declared a "workers' hero," she explained her symbolic role two years ago, shortly before winning her second Olympic gold medal, at Calgary. "When I do well, coming from a socialist country like the German Democratic Republic," she said, "other countries have grounds to respect us." She was not merely mouthing the party line, observes one Western diplomat. "She really feels that way."

Her loyalty to the regime did not go unrewarded by Communist Party boss Erich Honecker, who twice bestowed state honors upon her. Witt professes bewilderment that Honecker's admiration should now be held against her. "I couldn't help that," she says, exasperated. "If President Bush admired Tina Turner, I think she would be proud of it."

The clamor against Witt has subsided recently as her countrymen turn their attention to more pressing matters. There are rumors, though, that Katarina is considering leaving her homeland, perhaps for the U.S., where modeling doyenne Eileen Ford once claimed she could turn the ice princess into a megamannequin. Yet Boitano, who'll be performing in 31 North American cities with Witt, reckons that she will always call East Germany home. "Katarina has never run away from anything," he says. "She likes to travel. But she loves her country, is proud of who she is there and enjoys returning to her family and friends."

But in a country changing as fast as East Germany, Katarina may find that "home" can be lost without running away. "Everybody is talking Germany! Germany! Germany!" she says. "They are not my feelings. My country is not the Germany of 60 or 70 years ago. It is East Germany." She recoils at the specter of her land being overrun by prosperous Germans from west of the border. "They will buy up every centimeter," she says. "The country I know won't be here anymore. It won't exist. And this hurts."

—William Plummer, Fred Hauptfuhrer in Berlin

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