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Jacob Sweetman: The Polish pole vaulter and the GDR’s Des Lynam

Jacob Sweetman has got technical issues, but with a copy of the GDR sporting lexicon, and the peerless RBB film archives, he will boldly push onwards in a search for the ghosts of Olympics’ past and from the days when the games' coverage was special.

Image for Jacob Sweetman: The Polish pole vaulter and the GDR's Des Lynam
Waldemar Cierpinski. Photo courtesy of the Deutsches Bundesarchiv

The point of making it into the 21st century without humanity having decimated itself with a nuclear war, plagues of locusts or us being left to the whims of ship’s captains that make all of our stereotypes about Italians in uniform sadly outdated, was surely that things would be made easier. After all, what is the point of relying so heavily on technology if it will inevitably throw a strop like Zlatan Ibrahimovich on a heavy speed comedown?

Dear readers: during Borussia Mönchengladbach’s thrilling romp over Bayern on Friday night the Sportsdesk’s computer switched from being the friendly, futuristic, helpful type that we dreamed of, and turned into the belching, evil monster that we all knew was going to come out at some point. It juddered, whined and ground to a halt.

As Monchengladbach’s fans could think back happily to their favourite years in the 1970s as Marco Reus did his best Gunter Netzer impression, the Sportsdesk was plunged back to a similar time, just one that considered the Etch-A-Sketch to be the pinnacle of technical achievement, and the brown pullover the height of sartorial art and grace.

Instead of a startlingly accurate blow by blow account of Berlin’s own Sabine Lisicki’s hammering at the hands of Maria Sharapova in the Australian open (and it was a hammering, so much so that the papers mostly have ignored it and are doubling their efforts in publishing more photos of Michaela Schaefer’s tits than their competitors), we are left with this: a man flailing around, in an alien living room at a keyboard that makes no sense with just a copy of Viz Comic and the GDR sporting lexicon in hand – a book so beautifully anal you could mash your food up and pass it through the 400 plus pages, detailing a thousand of the former countries finest bobsleighers and ice dancers.

The lexicon is sporting-porn of the finest sort, and it has enriched my trips to the wonderful RBB archives in Babelsberg. With thoughts of this summer’s Olympic Games in mind I watched hours of footage from the 1980 games that had been dragged out of their caves specifically for me.

And considering that the forthcoming London games will be the antithesis of everything that the Games are supposed to represent, it is intriguing to hear the voice of legendary face of GDR sport, Heinz Florian Oertel, talking about the human achievements and the competitive brotherhood between the sportsmen and women and the idealism that seems as out of place nowadays as Katarina Witt gracing the cover of Playboy did.

Sebastian Coe’s dream of the Olympics is different for sure. He talks about the good that it will achieve for the disenfranchised whilst the reality is one of pockets being filled, human rights being breached and money being wasted. Naturally, Oertel had to tell a different story. The Moscow games had been boycotted by West Germany amongst many others, and he had little choice but to big up his countries achievements, and those of the all-conquering hosts. It wasn’t the done thing to play down socialist achievements, and he left us in little doubt that this is what they were. From Teófilo Stevenson’s boxing gold to the GDR’s victory in a fantastic handball final against the USSR.

But if we are lucky, there will be a couple of stories from London to match those of the likes of Waldemar Cierpinski defending his gold medal in the marathon, which had the stadium in raptures and the balding commentator almost in tears. You rarely see athletes that look like Cierpinski any more, with sideburns and a balding pate. Or you rarely hear stories of the likes of the gold medal winning high jumper Gerd Wessig, who broke the world record with a 2.36m jump, and eventually had a sandwich named after him in the cafeteria in his University in Schwerin. It cost DM2.36.  

One can only hope that they didn’t do the same for Władysław Kozakiewicz in Poland for his world record pole vault because over a fiver for a sandwich seems a bit rich, but also because he had been honoured already with the traditional “up yours” gesture being named after him. In a message delivered to the jeering Russian fans in the stadium Kozakiewicz made his point very clear indeed. Needless to say Oertel wasn’t referring to this when he talked of “this being the best answer to those who want to discredit the games”.

I could, and indeed do, watch this stuff for hours. Making propaganda out of sporting achievements is nothing new, and is certainly not confined to the former East. We should take everything the likes of Coe say with a pinch of salt, and then fire him out of a cannon, lighting the Olympic flame to justify the millions he has spunked on the opening ceremony.