One of the dominating themes coming out of the Games of the 24th Olympiad, along with the news that drug use is up and U.S. basketball is down, is the fact that if you want to be an Olympic hero it's a good idea to be born within driving distance of the Elbe River - somewhere inside the confines of the German Democratic Republic. That's the Germany with a fence around it.You've probably noticed that East Germany is using the occasion of the united Games in Seoul to give a clinic on how to clean up. Their team colors here are gold, silver and bronze. Their national anthem has been heard more often the past two weeks than "Hand in Hand." The only country they've let win more total medals is Mother Russia, which is probably a good idea.
On a per-capita medal basis East Germany is so far ahead of the rest of the world it should be put in another league. Today East Germany. Tomorrow the world.
After 13 days of the 16-day Olympiad had run their course Thursday, the East Germans had won 79 total medals (31 gold, 25 silver, 23 bronze), compared with 93 for the Soviets (38-21-34) and 61 for the United States (23-20-18).
This from a country the size of Ohio with a population of 17 million and shrinking.
East Germany is not huge. You could lose it in Canyonlands. Technically, it is really only half a country, tucked in between Poland, Czechoslovakia and, of course, West Germany.
The East German Olympic team is hardly huge, either. It numbers just over 250 members, or about half that of either the U.S. or
And neither are there a lot of East German fans roaming the streets of Seoul, buying up armloads of counterfeit polo shirts and Rolexes down at It'aewon when they're not wearing themselves out waving their flags to coax their heroes home. Most East Germans are back in Leipzig or Dresden or Halle working on the current five-year plan in the commune and catching what they can of the Olympics on TV.
When an East German wins a medal, it's rather quiet.
But the noise is deafening, just the same. Smugness and medal counts speak louder than words.
Or as Klaus Huhn, a state-approved sports writer for the Berlin newspaper Neues Deutschland, said Thursday, "We came here and hoped to do very well. But we were not dreaming to beat the U.S., which is a little bigger country than ours."
Well, only by about 49 states and 250 million people.
The Olympics are a tribute to East Germany that its system works. Not its political or economic system - indeed, the country has gone through its tough times the past four decades, to the point where the population has reportedly stagnated and even dwindled. That's not easy to do in a country that has a wall to keep its people in.
But the sports system is second to none; or at least, insofar as Olympic medals are concerned, second only to the Soviets.
Huhn explained the system.
"If you are in a normal school and it's discovered that you have a talent in sports," he said, "then you are asked if you would like to go to a school where sports are emphasized."
It's that simple.
The whole country is constantly conducting a draft, like the NBA or NFL.
Kids with talent are started early and they're started fast. Five-year-olds practice gymnastics as much as three days a week, two hours a day. Specialized coaches, paid and controlled by the state, monitor every athlete's progress day by day, week by week, month by month.
If you're good, you never have to quit. You will be schooled, housed, fed and paid by the state.
The East Germans may not have a lot of material luxuries, but they are not lacking for sports clubs. According to a report in the New York Times, there are 17,651 sports clubs in the country, with 3.6 million members - who pay less than $1 a month dues.
There is a National Sports University in Leipzig and 22 elite sports clubs that develop the strongest, fastest and quickest as far as they can be developed.
When the Olympics come along, it's showin' off time.
East Germany doesn't even bother to send its marginal athletes. Only those with realistic medal hopes are put on the outbound plane - hence the relatively small team in Seoul. You'll never see an East German lapped.
What you will see are some of the most efficient athletes in the world in a wide variety of sports. These are people who caught on at an early age and kept catching on. A lot of times, all they have to do now is show up.
And the state will make sure of that. It's another part of the state-controlled system. Everybody is on a no-trade contract.