My favorite episodes of ESPN’s documentaries are the ones that provide a more-than-ordinary introduction and leave me with pages of questions to research. The Diplomat is a fine overview of Katarina Witt’s career as an East German figure skater and the life of a supposedly amateur athlete in a socialist regime on the verge of collapse. It covers state-run Olympic athletic organizations within non-democratic countries—with a different tone than China’s gymnastics teams or any team from North Korea receives—as well as the importance of nationalistic victories on a worldwide athletic stage at the end of the Cold War, exploring the idolization of athletes and subsequent hostility during the fall of the Soviet Union. And it offers a traditional profile of a charismatic athlete who arrives on a big stage at the right time with the right skills to defy business as usual for amateur athletes in East Germany.
Growing up, my father had the most profound effect on my sports fandom, taking me to college football and basketball games, and a handful of Giants games every season. Thanks to my uncle I somehow ended up an Oakland Raiders fan. But my mother affected my love of sports in subtle ways that stick with me. She really liked John Elway, so when both the Raiders and 49ers were down, I rooted for the Broncos to get Elway his elusive championships—I still have a Broncos blanket in the trunk of my car for emergencies, left over from that era. And during the Olympics, without fail I’d end up watching figure skating with my mom. Sure, my brother and I would play video games while the short program was on, but I still paid attention, and I still remember the figure skating medal winners from every Winter Olympics starting in 1998.
I am a total sucker when it comes to nationalism during the Olympics. I bought into Apollo Ohno, Michael Phelps, and basically every USA Olympic storyline that involved winning. But figure skating is something I watch because it reminds me of family. I have absolutely no idea how to judge a performance unless someone falls, which is how I imagine many people also watch those competitions once every four years. That’s a good thing, since The Diplomat doesn’t spend much time picking apart Witt’s two gold medal-winning routines, or her rigorous training, or any advancement in the sport that she made as an athlete. This film is interested in Witt as a cultural icon in East Germany at a time when the government was starting to show cracks.
At a young age, Witt’s mother brings her to the rink in Karl-Marx-Stadt (modern-day Chemnitz, in Saxony) where Katarina is selected for a hint of talent. She rises quickly, aligns with Jutta Müller, quite possibly the best figure skating coach in the history of the sport (though Americans and Russians would certainly dispute this), and achieves national prominence and international stardom with her first Olympic gold in 1984. The Diplomat barely engages with the way Witt’s looks played into her popularity—Dan LeBatard broached the subject rather brusquely in an interview earlier on Tuesday—but a lot of the news footage from interviews in the late 1980s strikes a patronizing tone as English-speaking journalists talk down to what they assume is a dainty, oppressed pixie, but who instead turns out to be an electric personality capable of commanding a room.
In the run-up to the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, the story shifts to the question of amateur athletes in socialist countries competing as professionals after their Olympic career ends. It’s such a statistically rare occurrence for an athlete who trained on state funds to achieve Witt’s status, but Frau Müller’s own daughter couldn’t convince the East German government to consent to a professional career that would take advantage of international capitalist markets. Back to my pages of questions for a moment—that touching parallel between Witt and Muller’s daughter gets a lot less meaningful when the details of Witt’s life in East Germany—bonuses, cars, apartments, vacation homes—emerge after her second gold medal victory in 1988, which helped her secure permission for a professional career.
And this is the kind of question that The Diplomat brings up that fascinates me. In a socialist regime, athletes transcend normal life to bring national pride to smaller states such as the obvious dictatorship in East Germany. But they devote so much time and effort to their success—is the hostility toward Witt’s special treatment after the fall of the Berlin Wall hypocritical when the country was so happy for her unifying victories? Does international sports success really translate to well-being across the country? When I first read Animal Farm in a few hours on a Sunday afternoon as a teenager, my father quoted “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” for weeks as I devoured more communist Russian history. I kept thinking of that as I watched Witt driving a shiny new BMW or whisking off to another international location.
In the west, there are concerns about how showy professional athletes can be with their wealth. But it’s a capitalist system, the athletes have a marketable ability, and they should be able to obtain as much money as they can for the limited amount of time they have that ability at their disposal. In other political systems, that athletic gift is considered no different from technical ability in a factory, no matter how many people can be affected by an athlete’s public success. Those kinds of political and societal questions are on the fringes of the story The Diplomat tells about Witt’s career as a skater and public lightning rod for East German culture. And it certainly has the benefit of an amiable personality at its center, more than capable of navigating interviews and shaping a story that touches on many intriguing aspects of her own history and that of East Germany.
The Diplomat isn’t heavy on details—and it doesn’t challenge Witt to answer for her benefits aside from a few sentences of defense. She doesn’t have to answer the challenge laid against her by the impoverished, instead she is made out to be the victim of Stasi informers all around her who contributed to a 3500 page file in the secret police headquarters. But the questions it does raise—and they are plentiful—make the film an intriguing portrait of a fiercely charismatic athlete from a sport that rarely gets taken seriously.
- 30 For 30 will take on figure skating in an upcoming film, but it’s a bit of a disappointing topic: the media circus surrounding the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal. Yet another instance of that series not taking women’s sports seriously in the same way it does for events involving men that deserve more thoughtful attention.
- Witt still has all that charm and charisma in spades. Earlier on Tuesday, she appeared on Highly Questionable and completely flummoxed Dan LeBatard. It’s hilarious.