East German authorities called it the Anti-Fascist Protective Wall. West Berlin's mayor called it the Wall Of Shame. What many may not know is that the erection of The Berlin Wall in 1961 had a significant impact on the trajectory of figure skating history.
In response to The Berlin Crisis, the fifteen member nations of NATO (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Turkey, the United States and West Germany) voted with the Warsaw Act to bar East German citizens from receiving entry visas to their countries.
East Germany's Irene Müller and Hans-Georg Dallmer. Photo courtesy German Federal Archive.
With the exception of exclusion from participating in the Richmond Trophy in England, East German skaters went virtually unaffected by the NATO decision during the 1961/1962 skating season. A full contingent of skaters were sent to neutral Switzerland for the 1962 European Championships that year. The team of Irene Müller and Hans-Georg Dallmer even cracked the top five in the pairs competition. Müller and Dallmer, Gaby Seyfert and Bodo Bockenauer represented East Germany in the 1962 World Championships in Communist Czechoslovakia. At the following year's European Championships in Budapest, Hungary, East Germany again had a full slate of entries. 1961 European Bronze Medallists Margit Senf and Peter Göbel returned to competition and finished fourth in the pairs event. However, when it came time for the 1963 World Championships in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, things got political.
Following Italian government policies, the Federazione Italiana Sport del Ghiaccio refused to allow the East Germans to participate. Instead of withdrawing in support of their Communist peers, the Soviet and Czechoslovakian skaters showed up... and presented the International Skating Union with an official protest. To say that there was palpable tension between ISU members at the June 1963 ISU Congress in Helsinki, Finland was really the understatement of that skating season. In her wonderful book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves noted, "The ISU faced a decision to hold all international events behind the Iron Curtain or in neutral countries (Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland or Japan), where all entrants could go... The East German, Soviet, and Swedish delegates... tabled motions requiring guarantees from host countries that host competitors and officials would be admitted to international events without discrimination as to race, religion or politics. These idealistic motions meant nothing because a national skating association could not transcend the political decisions of its federal government."
A proposal submitted by Great Britain's National Skating Association was perhaps a little more tempered, taking into consideration how a similar situation had been dealt with some ten years earlier and the impact on all sides. Then-NSA secretary E.G. Coggins, in a proposal submitted to all ISU members, wrote: "In 1953, the World Championships were awarded to Czechoslovakia (Prague). Shortly before these Championships were due to take place, the Czechoslovak Government refused entry permits to two Canadian skaters [Otto and Maria Jelinek], and, in consequence, the Council of the International Skating Union cancelled these Championships and transferred them to Switzerland (Davos). The Council of the International Skating Union allocated the World Championships of 1963 to Italy (Cortina), having received an assurance on behalf of the Italian National Association that entry permits would be granted to intending competitors from all countries. Shortly before these Championships were due to start, the Council of the International Skating Union was informed that the Italian Government refused entry permits to competitors from East Germany. Instead of adopting the principle of 1953 in connection with Czechoslovakia, the Council of the International Skating Union decided to allow the World Championships to take place in Italy, although intending competitors from East Germany were excluded, thereby yielding to discrimination, instead of cancelling these Championships or transferring them to another country, as was done in 1953. The reason why the Italian Government refused entry permits for East German Skaters was because Italy is one of the fifteen [NATO] States (thirteen in Europe and two in North America) which decided in 1961 to place restrictions upon East German nationals desirous of participating in international events in connection with athletics, sports, games and pastimes, consequent upon the erection of the wall between East and West Berlin. The National Skating Association of Great Britain considers that it is regrettable that the Council of the International Skating Union yielded to discrimination in connection with World Championships in Figure Skating and Ice Dancing in 1963, and urges that the Council will not yield to discrimination in connection with any future International Championship. The National Skating Association of Great Britain urges, further, that each member country of the International Skating Union whose National Government is a member of the North Atlantic Organization should strive to persuade its Government to assist in the removal of the restrictions placed upon the East Germans which has had the effect of depriving the western sporting circles from holding World and European Championships in various sports, including Skating."
On one side, members of those fifteen NATO member nations would have been excluded from hosting international figure skating competitions until NATO lifted its ban on East German entry visas. At the time, three of the four World Championship titles were held by skaters who represented NATO nations (West Germany, Canada and The Netherlands) and skaters from France and Great Britain had also both had skaters medal in Cortina d'Ampezzo. Many of these NATO nations were highly influential ISU members. On the other side, East German skaters would be essentially barred from competing in the European or World Championships if they were held in a NATO nation. The ISU needed a two thirds majority to guarantee admission of skaters of all nations. In a vote of twenty four to twenty three, those against ensuring the East Germans would be guaranteed admission won out. To add insult to injury, the 1964 European Championships were awarded to France, the 1964 World Championships to West Germany and the 1965 World Championships to the United States.
1964 Olympic Gold Medallist Manfred Schnelldorfer of West Germany
With the possibility of sending skaters to compete at the European or World Championships during the 1963/1964 season having essentially flown out the window, the Deutscher Eissport-Verband was placed in the totally awkward position of having to work with the Deutscher Eislauf-Verband to form a joint Olympic team for the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. This business of 'putting aside differences' and joining forces to form a Gesamtdeutsche Mannschaft (Unified Team of Germany) to compete in the Winter Olympics was nothing new. Both countries had managed just fine prior to the wall's erection in 1956 and 1960. So charged was the political atmosphere following the 1963 ISU Congress that talks became heated less than a month after the Helsinki meeting when the East Germans refused to accept West Berlin as the venue for an Olympic qualifying competition. In the end, both sides put on their big girl Lederhosen and sucked it up. Under the Unified Team Of Germany banner, West German skaters Manfred Schnelldorfer, Marika Kilius and Hans-Jürgen Bäumler medalled in Innsbruck. None of the East German skaters on the team managed to make the top ten. Things again fell apart at the World Championships in Dortmund, when the West German organizers insisted on announcing the East German skaters by their federation and not country name. The entire East German team withdrew from the competition in protest.
The following season, the European Championships were held in the Communist Soviet Union. East Germany was finally represented in all four disciplines. By this time, NATO sanctions on entry visas were relaxed sufficiently to allow skaters from East Germany to compete at the World Championships at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Gaby Seyfert of Chemnitz, coached by her mother Jutta Müller, finished fifth in the women's competition. Problem solved, right?
1970 World Champion Gaby Seyfert of East Germany
Wrong. At the 1969 ISU Congress, East Germany got itself briefly suspended for circulating a letter accusing the ISU of discrimination and being politically influenced by West Germany. As in 1964, they wanted to use the name 'Deustche Demokratische Republic' - or German Democratic Republic - which ISU officials thought would be too easily confused with that of the Federal Republic Of Germany. The suspension was lifted in November of 1969 after the East German federation withdrew their protest and apologized for its accusations. The following year, East German skaters claimed medals in the men's, womens and pairs events at both the European Championships in Leningrad and the World Championships in Ljubljana.
In the years to come, Katarina Witt, Anett Pötzsch, Jan Hoffmann, Christine Stüber-Errath, Manuela Groß and Uwe Kagelmann, Romy Kermer and Rolf Österreich and Manuela Mager and Uwe Bewersdorf would all claim Olympic medals... but that didn't mean the East German federation had learned its lesson. At the 1987 World Championships in Cincinnati, they threatened to pull Katarina Witt's entry when the event program was released listing East Germany instead of the German Democratic Republic under her name. Organizers spent hours affixing German Democratic Republic stickers over the words East Germany in each of the programs that were printed. Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came crashing down and the East German skating dynasty's golden days were over.
The moral of the story from this whole sixties skating scandal? Building a wall between two countries only generates a hell of a lot of conflict and drama... and it absolutely can spill into the skating world more than you would think.
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