Those of us old enough to have followed the sport of figure skating long enough to remember the championships that were held before the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 can remember the cadre of top figure skaters who were developed in and represented the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany.
From the years between 1966 and 1990, a succession of top East German women stood on the European, World, and Olympic podium. Granted, it was a small collection of skaters, as typically there was only one world-ranked GDR skater on the scene at the same time, but these women usually managed to bring medals home to the GDR.
Starting in 1966, Gabrielle (Gaby) Seyfert, the daughter of the renowned GDR skating coach, Frau Muller, won three World silver medals and the 1968 Olympic silver medal, each time finishing second to Peggy Fleming of the US. In 1969 and 1970, Gaby won the world title, and she left the competitive ranks after her second World title to return home to the GDR. I could never quite understand why she did not continue on through the 1972 season, as quite likely she would have won the Olympic gold medal. Seyfert was a bubbly blond, rather stockily built, and she had high jumps and great energy.
In 1973 another East German skater, Christine Errath made the first of several appearances on the World podium. She won the bronze in 1973, the gold in 1974, the bronze in 1975, and the silver in 1976. Christine won the Olympic bronze medal in 1976, behind Dorothy Hamill and Dianne deLeeuw. Errath had a habit of standing at center ice at the conclusion of her programs, with her hands on her hips, looking directly at the judges. She, too, seemed to have a lot of joy in her skating. She wasn't particularly graceful or artistic, but she had strong jumps and determination.
Annet Poetzsch was next in line. She won World silver medals in 1977 and 1979, behind Linda Fratianne of the US, and she won the World title in 1978 and 1980. Annet won the Olympic gold medal at Lake Placid in 1980, in a somewhat controversial finish. In those days, the compulsory school figures counted for half of of the overall score, with the short program counting for 20 percent and the long program counting for the remaining 30 percent. The cumulative number of points determined the winner. Annet was excellent in the school figures, and she built up a solid lead after that phase of the competition. While her free skating was relatively weak - she was only 4th in the short and 3rd in the long - she won enough overal points to win the gold medal. I remember her long program as solid if somewhat dull. She skated to the soundtrack of "Funny Girl", presumably in an attempt to appeal to the American audience. Annet only landed one triple jump - a salchow - in her long program, and she two-footed one of her double jumps, but, again, she was good enough to hold on to the gold medal. As she stood at the boards to skate her long program, Frau Muller took both of her hands and said to her, "You must be strong. You must land the jumps. You must win." Annet was overjoyed at becoming the first East German figure skater to win Olympic gold, and she wept as her national anthem was played at the medal ceremony.
Katarina Witt was the next noteable GDR skater, and she became a major star in the sport. She won six European titles, four World titles (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988) and the 1984 and 1988 Olympic titles. Katarina's success was helped, no doubt, by the fact that she was stunningly beautiful - "12-car pileup gorgeous", as "Sports Illustrated" described her. When she won her first Olympic title, she received thousands of passionate love letters from all over the world. She, too, was also coached by Frau Muller, and she was extremely well trained and competitively sharp in her major competitions. Witt may not have been the best skater of her era, but she was the best competitor - she came through when it counted, and she skated brilliantly under pressure. She said after Calgary that she was extremely nervous, not only because she wanted to defend her title, but she also knew that if she failed to win the gold medal she would probably not be allowed to travel outside of her country to skate professionally. As it happened, the collapse of the Berlin Wall opened the doors for her to skate wherever and whenever she chose to.
Evelyn Grossman and Simone Lang were up and coming East German skaters in the late 1980's, and they pretty much disappeared from the radar, competitively speaking, after the GDR ceased to exist.
Witt has been interviewed several times on "Larry King" and other talk shows. She spoke at length about the "privileges" she received as a champion skater who represented the GDR. These goodies included spending money (a very small amount, compared to what today's top skaters earn), two small apartments, one in East Berlin, the other in her hometown of Karl Marx-Stadt, and a small car.
Katarina also said she was disappointed that her parents never had the chance to see her compete at the Olympics or at the Worlds until the 1988 Worlds, which were held in then-communist Budapest, Humgary. Obviously, the GDR was afraid that the Witt family might choose to defect, if they were all out of the country at the same time.
Jan Hoffman was the most prominent of the East German men during that era. He won the World title in 1974 and 1980, bronze in 1976 and 1979, silver in 1977 and 1978, and the Olympic silver medal in 1980. Hoffman was strong and solid, but not particularly artistic or expressive. I remember "Sports Illustrated" describe his skating at Lake Placid to an "expertly spinning wood tree". Ouch! Hoffman has been a longtime figure skating judge. He was "blamed" for awarding the tiebreaker artistic mark to Oksana Baiul at the 1994 Olympics that ultimately gave Baiul the gold medal over Nancy Kerrigan of the US. Yet, as Scott Hamilton said, "Jan is one of the most honest, decent people I've ever known. He would not have awarded the mark unless he truly believed that was the right mark to give."
Sabine Baess and Tassilo Thierbach won the World pairs title in 1982, the silver in 1981 and 1983, and the bronze in 1984. Manuela Mager and Uwe Bewersdorf won three successive World silver medals in 1978 - 1980, and they won the Olympic pairs bronze medal in 1976 and 1980. Romy Kermer and Roft Osterrech won World silver medals in 1975 and 1976, the World bronze medal in 1974 and the Olympic silver medal in 1976.