Diplomats in Tracksuits

‘Mr Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’

—Ronald Reagan

The summer of 1987 was a memorable one for many among ‘Generation Jan Ullrich’, whether they lived on the East or West side of the Berlin Wall. In August, Ullrich’s mum, Marianne, would drive him to the capital in her white Trabant, as excited as she was nervous about seeing her ‘Jani’ fly the family nest – and Ullrich landed in a city in a state of building ferment. A few weeks earlier, David Bowie had returned to West Berlin a decade after finding his creative oasis in the decrepit, still war-scarred doomscape ignored by empty suits in Bonn yet somehow fetishized by artists and musicians. A ‘Disneyland for depressives’, as the English record producer Mark Reeder calls it in the documentary, B Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin. A ‘city with its arse in the garbage can’, in the words of another famous and troubled Berlin émigré, Nick Cave.

The city had changed little since Bowie had moved out of his apartment in Schöneberg, but something was quietly stirring. That June, a three-day music festival celebrated Berlin’s 750th birthday in the shadow of the Reichstag, naturally on the West side. But the ‘death zone’ bisecting the city was a more effective barrier to the venal ideas of capitalism than it was to sound – specifically, the message of hope and defiance that Bowie delivered with his rendition of ‘Heroes’. He had recorded the song ten years earlier at a studio only a kilometre or two away, as an ode to a pair of separated lovers from the East and West.

The concert organizers boomed its chorus back over the Wall.

Before long, the hundreds of East Berliners who had gathered on their side of the Brandenburg Gate, many of them around Jan Ullrich’s age, were crowing back: ‘The Wall must go! The Wall must go!’ As the DDR Volkspolizei stormed into the crowd with their truncheons, the chants continued – a sarcastic karaoke of the Soviet anthem, ‘The Internationale’, and noisy invocations of the reformist Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Six days later, US President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Gate and addressed Gorbachev in a famous speech: ‘Mr Gorbachev,’ Reagan said, ‘open this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’

It would take two more years – and Jan Ullrich would spend them at the north-easternmost edge of a still very much divided city. His new home was a room on the seventh floor of a tower block not dissimilar from the one in which he had once lived in Rostock, among hundreds of others that had made a concrete honeycomb out of one half of the city skyline.

The dorm that Ullrich was to share with his old friend from Rostock and now fellow Dynamo Berlin undergraduate, André Korff, could best be described as spartan. Ullrich and Korff had called shotgun on the bunks, while a third room-mate, a fledgling track sprinter they knew as ‘Schitti’, would sleep on a single bed. They each had one shelf and a cupboard for clothes and other belongings. On the day of his arrival, Jan groaned with embarrassment when Marianne insisted on sticking around to help him unpack. He waited for her to leave before decorating the walls with posters: one of the 1987 Peace Race winner and Ullrich’s future team manager, Olaf Ludwig, and another of an East Berlin-based athlete whom Ullrich and Korff admired for more than just her prowess in the long-jump pit – the future Playboy model Susen Tiedtke.

With his arrival at Dynamo Berlin, Ullrich had joined approximately 10,000 young East Germans on the middle rung of the DDR talent ladder – the twenty-five academies created to ensure a steady supply line of elite athletes to East Germany’s sports clubs. Around 700 of the 3,500 sports club athletes would then typically meet the required standard to become a ‘diplomat in a tracksuit’ – the name informally given to the DDR team members called to embody and propagate the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) by representing their homeland in competitions like the Olympic Games. Among these organizations, SV Dynamo was the behemoth, with both its own connected KJS, of which Ullrich was now an inductee, and, above that, the most successful of the DDR’s twenty-five sports clubs. Had it competed at the 1972 Olympics in Munich as an independent nation, SV Dynamo would have finished ninth in the medal table. It was the pride of the East and certainly of Erich Mielke, its president, who from 1957 to the death of the DDR in 1989 served as the Minister for State Security, otherwise known as the secret police or the Stasi. The West German press dubbed Mielke the ‘Master of Fear’.

Being ‘delegated’ to Dynamo did not necessarily align someone with the Stasi – but neither did it exempt them, in the final years of the DDR, from scrutiny by the estimated 3,000 informants (IMs) mandated solely to report back on matters relating to sport. Recent studies suggest that around one in sixteen of the 17 million people living in the DDR was a Stasi employee, an informant or someone who would willingly provide the Stasi with intelligence on a more casual basis. IMs were recruited among coaches, journalists, club officials and even athletes themselves. Any youngster at a training centre hoping to be delegated to a KJS would already have had to pass various kinds of background checks, including scrutiny of their family and even presumptions about their sexual orientation by IMs. One of the leading researchers into the DDR sport system, Giselher Spitzer, provides the example of eleven- and twelve-year-olds being required to maintain a detailed training log in which they would also have to write down their goals or sporting heroes. Any child who gave the name of a Westerner would have the page ripped out of the book and a note added to their file. All children in the system were referred to as a Versuchsperson: literally, a test subject.

On his first afternoon as a Dynamo Berlin undergrad, Jan Ullrich knew almost nothing of what awaited him – beyond the name of his new coach, Peter Becker. I nonetheless assume that Ullrich was less apprehensive than I am twenty-nine years later, on a balmy Tuesday night early in September, when Becker instructs me to report to his house on the outer edges of Prenzlauer Berg in north-east Berlin at six o’clock. The pre-agreed plan is for Becker to ‘get to know’ me, size up my intentions, then decide whether or not we will go ahead with a ‘proper interview’ the following day.

It doesn’t sound altogether promising. The DDR sports system, its architects and enforcers, were as renowned for their secrecy as they were for their discipline. One epithet is almost ubiquitous in portrayals of Becker: he was, had always been, a ‘harter Hund’ – literally a ‘hard dog’. Meaning, I presume, that his bite will be as bad as his bark.

Twenty minutes after I have stepped apprehensively through his front gate and found him watering plants in the back garden that is his pride and joy, Becker has both hands locked firmly, painfully around my right forearm. He is also growling. It is less Chinese burn than Berliner vice.

‘You see, a wolf gets you like this and rips your arm off,’ Becker is telling me, gritting his teeth. ‘People think the wolf is this cute, cuddly animal. “Save the Wolf!” Pah! The wolf is a fierce creature! Fierce! He looks as though he doesn’t want to get too close, but he’s watching. He’s watching. Checking the colour of your clothes. Your scent. Deciding whether you’ll make a good meal. A wolf needs three and a half kilos of meat a day . . .’

Becker releases his grip to raise an exclamatory finger.

‘They’re getting closer to Berlin every year. Every year. One of these days, you’ll see . . .’

On that alarming note, Becker brings his arms to rest, folded, upon his chest, seemingly satisfied that he has made his point. He can now take off his overalls to reveal a faded black Team Telekom polo shirt that must be twenty years old. Becker himself has scarcely aged since we last saw him at races and in photographs a decade or so ago, invariably alongside Ullrich. His pelt is a snowier shade, but the hairline remains as luxuriant and the eyebrows just as bushy. Contrary to reputation, the old dog is also a warm, welcoming, avuncular host, albeit one who makes his point in a booming, sometimes unintelligibly pronounced Berlin accent, through a barrage of ‘k’s and ‘j’s. Any diffidence or hesitation on his part has nonetheless quickly disappeared, or is well concealed.

I have already learned, and will have it confirmed to me over the next four hours – then four more the following day – that Peter Becker loves to talk. The quite literally gripping tutorial on the migration habits of quadruped predators segues naturally from a question about Becker’s plans for the following afternoon, and him announcing that he is off to hunt. He is a lifelong naturalist and graduate of forestry school, leading me to ponder but not ask how he reconciles his seemingly contradictory passions. Before we start talking – just quatschen, small talk, not a real interview yet, as he reminds me and himself – Becker insists on giving me a tour of his house. We go first to a living room that doubles as a taxidermy museum, its walls bedecked with stags’ heads and wild boar snouts, its coffee tables patrolled by ornamental squirrels and ferrets. We then head downstairs, past more antlers, these ones rescued from the old DDR leader Erich Honecker’s hunting lodge after reunification – another long story – and into a small office where Becker has filled several shelves with his cycling cups and trophies. Among them I spot a small glass disc mounted upon a piece of marble. The inscription underneath tells me this was Jan Ullrich’s prize at Arcalís in 1997.

We go back upstairs, through to Becker’s conservatory or ‘winter garden’, and onto the serious business – or, as he says, the small talk. A few hours later, the next morning, we are back in the same spot, and will be for the next several hours. Every once in a while Becker’s wife will appear with refreshments – and they will be the only interruptions. It turns out that his arm didn’t need much twisting. Once bitten, twice shy, both of mine remain hidden under the long sleeves of a thick sweater.

The story of how Peter Becker fell in love with cycling is, he tells me, a simple one to which nearly every child can relate. ‘The flash of the spokes as they catch the sunlight. The gliding sensation. The speed. The tingle on your cheeks as skins breaks the air,’ he coos. ‘A kid is always fascinated by a bicycle . . .’

He saw his first one in 1949, at age eleven, in Bad Belzig, the town an hour west of Berlin where his family had sought refuge when the war broke out. Three years later, Becker and his classmates watched from the roadside as the Peace Race swooshed past their school, a shimmering blaze of metal, muscles and dreams. Soon, Becker was dismantling his stepfather’s bike and attempting to rebuild it into an improvised racing machine like the Czech-made Favorit beauties he had seen propelling the members of a local club.

By this time, the East German road map to international sporting glory was beginning to take shape. In 1946, Erich Honecker, the future leader of the SED, had spoken of ‘sport’s power to put large sections of population under its spell’. Two years later, Honecker went further, or rather closer to an admission that athletics, football and other competitive physical endeavours would fulfil a key political role in the DDR, by stating that, ‘Sport is not an end in itself, but a means to the end.’ As the former gold medal-winning swimmer turned academic Andrew Strenk put it in the late 1970s, ‘trade, commerce, diplomacy and negotiation were not available to the DDR for use in influencing the world beyond the borders of Eastern Europe [forcing them to] turn to sports as a medium of cultural diplomacy to obtain [their] foreign policy goals.’5 In truth, it would eventually come to look less like diplomacy than cultural aggression, a kind of ideological as well as literal muscle-flexing designed to prove the transcendence of the ‘socialist personality’ and expose the evils of capitalism. Hitler had tried something similar with Nazism and the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

By 1968, SED memos would be equating elite athletes not to diplomats but to soldiers, their West Germany counterparts with the NATO guards at the border. But before that, one of the first, proud feathers in the cap of DDR sport had arrived via the 1955 edition of the Peace Race. Overnight, Täve Schur, its winner, became the DDR’s first true sporting icon, and, Becker says, ‘A Pied Piper for my generation – still today.’ Schur was also a member of the SED and a parliamentarian who once declared that he owed everything he had achieved to his political party. Becker’s own quest to emulate him on two wheels began in 1957, when he took part in his first race in the colours of Dynamo Potsdam. He would discover in time that he was a more effective teacher than practitioner, despite competing in races like the Little Peace Race for junior riders. Before calling time on his own racing career, Becker also had his first and he claims still solitary experience of ‘doping’ – a codeine-caffeine-ephedrine solution bought from a chemist and, at the time, commonly and legally used by cyclists. He insists it did nothing except leave him shivering in a ditch. And turn him into a lifelong opponent of chemical performance enhancement.

Becker’s formal coaching career effectively began when he successfully applied to SV Dynamo in 1964, a year before a catalytic moment in East Germany’s weaponization of elite sport: the pharmaceutical company, VEB Jenapharm, synthesizing Oral Turinabol, the testosterone-boosting anabolic steroid that later became the DDR coaches’ Wunderwaffe – their wonder weapon. Becker was deployed two levels below the tip of the Dynamo performance pyramid, in the club’s KJS. He went on to coach many of the young cyclists who brought Dynamo sixteen out of a possible seventeen DDR national titles in the school-age categories in 1968, before an argument with club officials resulted in his banishment to the boxing division until 1974.

By then, East German sportsmen and women were flourishing at world and Olympic level. Having had to compete in a joint, if not exactly ‘unified’ German team in every previous Olympics since the war, the DDR was recognized as an independent sporting nation for the first time at the 1968 Games in Mexico City – and shocked the world by finishing fifth in the medal table. Sweetest of all was the fact that West Germany languished three places further down the rankings. The 1972 Olympics would be even more important on account of where they would take place – Munich. The powerbrokers at SED headquarters feared that the noisy neighbours would use the opportunity to glorify or ‘sportwash’ their ignoble, fascistic instincts, and were determined to ruin the festivities. To that end, after some dabbling before 1968, primarily by athletes from Dynamo Berlin, in September 1970 the head of sports medicine for all of the DDR, Manfred Höppner, formerly gave his blessing to a plan of systematic and illegal doping. The result in Munich was the desired drubbing of the Klassenfeind, with the DDR claiming twenty golds to West Germany’s thirteen. A valid detection method for anabolic steroids would arrive only four years later.

Peter Becker swears that his knowledge of Oral Turinabol went no further than ‘hearsay’. Later, he tells me, well after Munich, experiments with this and other drugs on track cyclists were inconclusive or unsuccessful, which is a claim that many would dispute. ‘They put us in the corner and they say [East German sport] was all just doping, but I always reject that,’ Becker says. Instead, in the darkest age of DDR doping – the two decades up to reunification during which the DDR was never out of the top three in Olympic medals, summer or winter, but 10,000 athletes are thought to have been doped – Becker says that he was refining a method based on the most organic of philosophies: ‘Nature gave us spring, summer, autumn and winter, and also day and night. We are living beings in an ecosystem and we have to abide by its laws.’

Meaning that, in the dorm rooms belonging to SV Dynamo, just as in the forests of north Brandenburg, only the strong would survive.

Becker’s introductory monologue to Jan Ullrich and the other members of his Dynamo Berlin class of 1987 also contained a warning – though this one had nothing to do with drugs or indeed encroaching wolves: ‘You no doubt think you’re the biggest and best but now the serious stuff starts and second and third place don’t mean anything any more. You’re all starting from zero,’ Becker told them.

Becker had encountered Ullrich for the first time a few months earlier, in November 1986, not on the road but in a cyclo-cross race in Potsdam, which Ullrich had won with ease. A month or so later, with Becker in attendance, Ullrich aced the KJS trials in Berlin that would determine the thirteen-year-old’s sporting future. His results in many of the disciplines were remarkable, not least the sub-ten-minute 3,000-metre run which was the best in East Germany, but Peter Becker had paid equal attention to the football match as the athletics and even the cycling trials (a flying 200-metre, a two-kilometre time trial on the track and a ten-kilometre time trial on the road). ‘I wanted to see the way a boy moved with and without the ball, his competitiveness, his work ethic and how much of a team player he was. In a match you can usually gauge someone’s character.’ In Ullrich’s first few weeks at Dynamo Berlin, Becker was struck by some of the same attributes he had seen a few months earlier: ‘His fighting spirit above all – as well as his ability to recover physically. But he was just desperate to make it, to become a really great rider.’

As already discussed, it was common practice in DDR sports schools to differentiate biological and chronological age, and Ullrich’s arrival at Dynamo Berlin also coincided with a period of mounting concern about how much late-blooming talent was going to waste in the training centres, KJSs and sports clubs. Weighing barely 50 kilograms and under five feet tall, Ullrich was still awaiting his growth spurt – and Becker trained him and six others accordingly, with noticeably lighter workloads. As had been the case under Peter Sager in Rostock, cycling initially accounted for a relatively small proportion of the daily routine. Long hours were also spent on the basketball court, the football pitch, on gym mats and in the swimming pool.

Jan Schaffrath, who was trained and schooled at Dynamo’s rival club, Turn-Sport-Club or TSC, and later became Ullrich’s teammate at Telekom, says the most underrated facet of the DDR method was its variety. ‘You can easily burn someone out if it’s just cycling, cycling, cycling all year but we were doing all sorts, and I think that’s maybe why a lot of the guys from the East ended up having very long careers – like Erik Zabel and Jens Voigt. Physically you also saw the legacy of it all later: [West German rider] Rolf Aldag used to say to me that he could tell who was East German and who was West German just by watching a sprint finish. The guys from the East had such incredible core strength from all the gym work they did that they barely moved on the bike.’

Peter Sager’s belief that elegance and power on a bike were rarely if ever mutually exclusive had already shaped Ullrich’s style. Now Becker only had to perfect it, as he explained in the book he wrote in 2004: ‘Ulli* absolutely mastered that elegant way of riding, that aesthetic style I wanted. I always compare it with a musician. Only when he’s truly grown up with the instrument, when it’s really in him, can he then start to improvise with it. Ulli can do that. It’s like he and the bike have been cast out of the same mould.’

The process of refinement was a time-consuming one. Ullrich would typically spend three to four hours on the bike every morning, then afternoons in the classroom at the Werner-Seelenbinder high school – or mornings behind a desk and afternoons in the gym or playing football. So it went, from Monday to Saturday (the DDR school week lasted six days). He would ride around 6,000 kilometres in his first year in Berlin, 9,000 in his second and 13,000 in his third. Training sessions were typically 60 to 80 kilometres long, most commonly into the thick forests or around the many lakes that dapple the east and north Brandenburg flatlands, then back to the big city. Sometimes Becker would take them to do intervals on the Großer Bunkerberg – an artificial hill built from Second World War rubble a couple of kilometres from Dynamo’s main campus in north-east Berlin.

Above all, Becker hopes that I have already grasped one thing – that he was never just some card-punching functionary mindlessly executing the dictates of the ‘Party’, the Dynamo leadership or the two government bodies which tussled for control of the sports schools – the Ministry for People’s Education and the German Gymnastics and Sport Confederation of the DDR. Never was his training more effective, he says, than when its recipients were enjoying themselves. To that end, he made them box, ice-skate and play football in ankle-high snow. He took them cross-country skiing on the famous Kammloipe in the Ore mountain range bordering Czechoslovakia. They swam in lakes. And when they were forced inside, into the cavernous gym halls of the Hohenschönhausen campus, Becker would patrol up and down the line of stationary bikes, orchestrating a virtual road-race: ‘Left turn, 200 metres downhill then sprint to get on the wheel!’ All a far cry from the images of poker-faced cyborgs in gym vests used in Western documentaries to account for the East German sporting miracle.

‘The way they’d give us training plans with targets and ratios was rubbish in many respects, but, among us coaches, we protected ourselves from that,’ Becker explains. ‘Back then, not everything was computer-processed, so we would write the figures down twice: one set of numbers for ourselves and one for the bosses. I carried on doing that right to the end. Simply gave them the training logs and figures that they wanted to see, while going on instinct and feel. If I’d always respected the plans, I would have had them out on the road in minus twelve degrees – but we had rotten clothing that was only made to be water repellent, not to keep them warm. That’s where I put my foot down: I said, “Inside, warm shower, in the pool, then home and to bed.” When I’d trained as a coach we’d always learned that health should be at the centre of everything. Later it looked as though it had become about performance at any price.’

Like with a lot of things in the DDR, Becker notes, noble ideas and desired effects had slowly drifted apart from real-world outcomes.

‘We had this socialist system based on the idea that the national wealth was everyone’s wealth, so no one could get rich at another person’s expense. But there were these huge contradictions that were our brand of socialism’s undoing. The whole notion of competition in society was bent out of shape. Just look at the food prices: a bread roll ended up costing the same in 1989 as it did in 1950 . . . I can’t use the gross national product for things that are a big waste, like the military or the Stasi. That’s where people started to be dissatisfied with the political system. They were promised wine and given water.’

The illusion of a socialist utopia had long since expired – but a hermetically sealed simulacrum did exist within the walls of clubs like Dynamo. Later, Ullrich’s friends would notice the fondness with which he talked about the years he spent in East Berlin. ‘I always had the impression that it was the best time of his life,’ says Falk Nier, the tennis player who later became his manager. Others confirm that it went beyond the stereotypical Ostalgie – a romanticization of the pre-reunification years of which Easterners are often accused. Becker worked out quickly that Ullrich enjoyed and thrived within the framework of a rigid routine, just so long as he didn’t have to create that structure himself.

‘Of course they also got up to their mischief – like watching West German television, which was strictly forbidden,’ Becker says. ‘And there was other nonsense. Dares. Ride as fast they could towards a door and the one who braked last was the winner. Of course you’re not supposed to know about these things but you start to play detective. “What have we got here then? Long black stripes in front of the door?” Skidmarks. Of course this was strictly forbidden. The door was glass, it would have shattered if they’d hit it – so no need to spell out how dangerous it could have been. Or when they were throwing water bombs out of the dorm window, and maybe the odd bottle. You try to educate them. Just imagine – you’re a DDR champion and you go through a glass screen, cut your tendon and you can’t ride a bike any more. Then they start to think about it a bit more . . .’

The topic of another kind of schooling – academic – and how much of it young East Germans received at the KJSs was a contentious one throughout the lifespan of the DDR. Officials had always maintained that the DDR’s continued success on the international sporting stage hinged on their ability to not only prepare their athletes physically but also to bestow upon them the credos of the ‘socialist personality’. This gave rise to a curriculum that eschewed French lessons in favour of Russian and prioritized Staatsbürgerkunde – long, prosaic lectures on the origins, political applications and inherent superiority of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine – as a bulwark against the evils of capitalist imperialism.

By his own admission ‘really bad’ in languages, Ullrich fared considerably better at maths and excelled in mechanics and lever equations according to his physics teacher. Not that his grades concerned him or any of his tutors unduly. As he said later, ‘At the KJS, training was the focal point of everything, not schoolwork. If you got bad marks, it wasn’t something to be proud of, but it wasn’t a massive issue either. If you weren’t performing in your sport, on the other hand, you’d be out of the door.’

On that score he had nothing to fear. At the end of his first year at Dynamo Berlin, he lined up in the B-Youth category in the DDR national road race championships. Ullrich was one of the smallest, slightest riders on the start line, but that was no disadvantage on a hilly course on the outskirts of Dresden. When André Korff crashed out early, Ullrich spied his opportunity, attacking on the final climb to take victory by over two minutes. His prize was a white jersey decorated with the black, red and gold bands of the national flag. He gave that to his grandfather, his most ardent and loyal supporter. He would also henceforth receive a monthly bursary of 100 marks given to all ‘national level’ athletes. Ullrich promptly informed his mum that he no longer needed the 30 marks pocket money she had previously sent to Berlin every few weeks.

One parental ‘privilege’ was still allowed – Marianne would still buy him ice cream when work brought her to Berlin and Jan would go to meet her in Alexanderplatz. He also still grudgingly acquiesced when, in the summer break after that first year at Dynamo Berlin, Marianne banned him from training on account of the heatwave on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast and increasing concerns about the growing hole in the ozone layer. Becker was furious when Ullrich reported back to Berlin out of shape – and amazed when, in the first fitness tests of the new term, he was still among the best in the class. Ullrich admitted later that the experience set an unhelpful precedent; the title of his autobiography, All or Not At All, was also a neat summation of how, Ullrich believed, he could allow himself periods of almost complete inactivity if a short training binge undid the damage.

The highpoint of Ullrich’s second year at Dynamo Berlin came in July 1989, when around 2,000 of the DDR’s most talented junior athletes – of the nearly two million that had tried to qualify in local preliminary rounds – converged on Berlin for the event that exemplified the spirit, the reach and the goals of the DDR sport system as well as any other: the Spartakiade. First held in 1966, this miniature Olympics mimicked the pomp, media coverage and even the sheer scale of the actual games, with its packed 100,000-capacity venues and dazzling flag-waving ceremonies. The events were also designed to give future DDR Olympic hopefuls a taste of the patriotic honour and responsibilities for which they were ultimately being groomed. Hence, Ullrich’s homework one day in the spring of 1989 was to write about his hopes for the Spartakiade, and he signed off with the vow to summon all of his ‘discipline’ and ‘fighting spirit’ to make Peter Becker and Dynamo proud. He finally took bronze in the four-man team time trial, but was outshone by his friend Korff, who won the road race. Throughout the week, Ullrich’s thoughts had also been permeated with the technicoloured, intoxicating images of another sporting showcase, this one taking place on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The Tour de France was rip-roaring towards its most thrilling conclusion in decades, with one former winner, Laurent Fignon of France, leading another, the American Greg LeMond, by fifty seconds ahead of the final-day time trial. It was unthinkable that any DDR channel would broadcast or in most cases even so much as mention a race contested behind enemy lines. But, as Peter Becker says with a smile, ‘They were sneaky – they were smart enough to play around with the aerial and pick up the Western channel, which wasn’t blocked. They turned the volume down, had one of them guard the door . . .’

Ullrich later revealed the finer details of their counter-espionage, explaining how one of the posse would hide inside the cabinet on which the television was perched, ready to switch channels at a second’s notice. Seconds were also what decided the Tour – eight of them being the difference when a devastated Fignon crossed the line, knowing that LeMond had overhauled him. Having supported LeMond throughout the Tour, Ullrich was euphoric, not to mention spellbound by the fleeting glimpse into another world that might as well have been another universe. As he put it: ‘The rumours about the prize money, the garishness of the publicity caravan, the bright-coloured jerseys of the pro teams, the high-tech bikes – it all left an indelible mark on us while all seeming unimaginably far away.’

That summer was proving even more tumultuous than the one of Ullrich’s arrival in Berlin two years earlier. In May, against the backdrop of Gorbachev’s Glasnost (liberalization) and Perestroika (restructuring) in the Soviet Union and the worsening economic downturn in the DDR, Hungary began dismantling its border fence with Austria, creating the first puncture in the Soviet Bloc. Tens of thousands of East Germans seized their opportunity to either sneak into the West via this back door or seek asylum at the West German embassy in Budapest. Having already downgraded border crossings from ‘crimes’ to ‘misdemeanours’, in September the Hungarian government removed all formal opposition to DDR citizens exiting their land to enter Austria. Soon Czechoslovakia had followed suit and, with tension at home escalating, the SED leadership allowed fourteen trains crammed with DDR ‘refugees’ to travel through the East on their way from Prague to Bavaria and a new future on the ‘other side’.

The scent of revolution was in the air, and it became ever more irresistible at a series of protests in the autumn, most notably in Leipzig and Berlin. With Ossis streaming out of the DDR and through the once ironclad Hungarian and Czech perimeters into Austria and West Germany, the SED began to implode. Erich Honecker, the party’s leader since 1971, was ousted in mid-October, after which his successor, Egon Krenz, failed to dissuade the government’s entire Cabinet from resigning on 7 November. The DDR had quite simply spiralled out of control.

Late in the afternoon of 9 November, in an otherwise routine press conference, an SED official made a muddled announcement about the DDR’s intention to open its borders, and the lack of clarity over when exactly that would take effect led to huge crowds converging on the Berlin Wall. At 11.30 p.m., the first unobstructed crossings took place when, fearing a stampede and confused by the mixed messages of his superiors, a border guard at the checkpoint on Bornholmer Straße simply opened a gate and began letting people into the West. The Wall effectively ‘fell’ at that moment.

In November 2019, I am living in Berlin when the city and Germany celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the moment when, as I keep reading in the papers, ‘the fear switched sides’. This meant that a population living in the dark, sinister shadow of the Iron Curtain – its paranoias and its repression – could finally emerge into the light, while many long-lost brothers and sisters suddenly required to welcome and reabsorb them gulped at the prospect. More simply put, when the DDR crumbled. The life-changing pivot that Germans, all Germans, whether ‘Ossis’ from the old East or ‘Wessis’ from the West, refer to simply as ‘Die Wende’ – the Turn, and which led in October 1990 to Germany’s official reunification.

The subject is so ubiquitous in the conversations of most Germans over thirty that it scarcely seems to need a week of parties, exhibitions or public debates for remembrance. At the same time, I tell myself, never more than over these seven days is it apparent that what looks to outsiders like Germans’ obsession with their own recent history, a form of collective PTSD, is truly a vain, never-ending attempt to understand the inexplicable and unconscionable. This process of introspection seems if anything to have become even more intense, more pressing and more confusing since the 2015 refugee crisis, when Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy and particularly one three-word soundbite that has become a lightning rod – ‘Wir schaffen das’ or ‘we can do this’ – exposed grave disunities in the way that Germans now view themselves, their past and their future, beyond and aside from the global rise of populism.

In Berlin, I see the struggles play out on a micro as well as a macro level: ordinary children of the East from ‘ordinary’ families who can’t quite fathom how at the time life felt precisely that – ordinary – and who even today have to make an effort to correlate their memory with vulgar caricatures; friends’ grandparents whose destinies were passed from the murderous hands of the Nazis into the grip of the Stasi; Berliners like the millennials and Gen Z-ers who surround me at a performance of East German punk music and poetry on the eve of the anniversary, in one of the key landmarks of the Berlin uprising, the Zionskirche in Mitte, and whose whimsical curiosity rather than a desire to relive and rejoice or grieve, it looks to me, is what has brought them here on a Friday night.

But I may also be wrong. A few days before the anniversary, the Guardian features a series of interviews with German writers. Maxim Leo, the former editor of the Berliner Zeitung and author of a famous memoir of family life in the East, says that the Germans aren’t interested in figuring anything out at all: Westerners just want to know that they were on the right side of history and that Ossis are a) exactly as the Wessis imagine and b) grateful. As a result, according to Leo, ‘East Germans stopped explaining themselves ages ago. Sometimes they still point out hesitantly that it didn’t rain all the time even in the DDR, that even under a dictatorship people were able to fall in love. That a genuinely normal life was possible even in a non-normal country. But then people in the West start wailing that the dictatorship is being played down, the DDR is being nostalgically transformed. So East Germans fall silent again, because what’s the point?’

Or just maybe, as Dirk Michaelis, the lead singer of Karussell, whose ‘Als ich forging’ became an anthem of the Wende, also says in the week of the anniversary, ‘Describing how life in the DDR was is like trying explain the wind or a temperature.’

Jan Ullrich has never spoken at great length about what it all meant to him. Ullrich was a couple of months into his third year at Dynamo Berlin when, in a matter of days, tens of thousands of demonstrators in Leipzig turned to hundreds of thousands, and momentum behind what came to be known as the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ became overwhelming. His teacher in ‘State Citizenship’ lessons, Herr Beyer, was suddenly called to perform an almost impossible tightrope walk – still imparting the canons of a system whose collapse neared by the day and finally the hour. ‘I would never have for a moment thought about joining the demonstrations,’ Ullrich wrote in his autobiography in 2004. ‘Why would I have? I wasn’t interested in politics and was, probably without realizing it, simply pragmatic . . . Yes, I wanted to travel, but I wanted to fight for that freedom in sport not in a protest.’6

On the famous night itself, Ullrich and his classmates watched events unfold on a communal TV in their dorm in Hohenschönhausen, just as they had watched the 1989 Tour. The next day, Ullrich was due to return to Rostock for his monthly home visit but instead went to Friedrichstraße train station – previously a bolted door to the West that was now suddenly ajar. Every DDR citizen had the right to claim 100 deutsche marks to use in the West as ‘greeting money’, and Ullrich went to the first bank he saw to collect his. He then made a beeline for the closest department store and its sportswear aisle. In the DDR, there had been two brands of trainers – Germina or the marginally more exotic, Czech-made Botas. Now Ullrich reached for his first pair of Adidas, forgetting to look at the price – and was soon aghast to realize that he had spent his whole 100 deutsche marks.

Initially, bizarrely, not too much changed in the sports schools’ day-to-day after November 1989, and certainly not before Germany’s official reunification nearly a year later. In July 1990, Ullrich and Becker travelled to Middlesbrough in the United Kingdom for the world championships on both the road and track – and they fared better indoors than out. Indeed, only a mistake by teammate Holger Schardt – leaving a gap on their inside as he prepared to lead Ullrich out – denied him a medal and possibly gold in the points race. ‘Which,’ Peter Becker says, ‘may have been just as well, because he wasn’t mature enough to deal with becoming a world champion.’ Ullrich had also missed out on something else while in Middlesbrough: his high-school graduation ceremony.

He had at least enjoyed the honour of being one of the last athletes to represent East Germany in a world championship. After the first free DDR elections in March, the terms and timings of the final transition had been delineated – to be followed by a road map for dissolution of the much vaunted, soon-to-be controversial elite sports pyramid. Peter Becker was by now weighing an offer to become an estate agent against a proposal to carry on as before with Ullrich et al – and Becker took the latter option. The cyclists were allowed to remain in their boarding house in Hohenschönhausen and Becker even kept the Barkas van from which he loudly choreographed their training rides. As far as Ullrich was concerned, the main differences between DDR and united Germany were material – and welcome – ones. A bike shop in West Berlin had agreed to supply new, burgundy-coloured jerseys adorned with the SV Dynamo badge. Becker also secured the delivery of three sparkling new, Italian-made Bianchi bikes. They would be allocated to his three best prospects: André Korff, Michael Giebelmann and Jan Ullrich.

Ullrich’s world was changing, expanding, just as, physically, he was undergoing his own transformation. Between his sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays, from December 1989 to December 1990, he grew twelve centimetres. ‘I hadn’t even heard of weight problems at this point,’ he remarked later. In the second week of January 1991, he became the first former East German cyclist to win a medal in a ‘unified’ national competition when he took bronze in the German junior cyclo-cross championships – wearing Adidas trainers. A few weeks later he sported the colours of the united Germany for the first time in the cyclo-cross junior world championships in Gieten, finishing fifth.

Berlin, Germany and life in general were in a state of flux, but, interlaced with the bigger transitions of adolescence, the shifts possibly felt less profound to a young man still tethered to at least some vestiges of his former existence. Becker’s hands-on training methods, for example, could apparently survive the implosion of the Eastern Bloc and the entire DDR sports system (including the much feted ESA talent-identification process) – and probably a nuclear war. ‘When I’m training them, I’m there from the first minute – whether it’s in the weights room, on the indoor trainer, the athletics track, if we’re doing gymnastics or they’re riding on the road,’ Becker says. ‘I’m hanging out of the window, telling them: “Small chainring, behind the car!”; or, 100 pedal revs per minute, at the heart rate I tell them. The only exception is when I do the first 50 kilometres with them out of Berlin, then turn around and tell them I’ll see them back at base. Otherwise I’m with them from the first moment to the last.’

When Becker did loosen his grip, it often resulted in frustration. Like when Ullrich went to Tenerife for a national team training camp in the summer of 1991 and returned, according to Becker, ‘sunburned and badly trained’. With Becker’s hand firmly back on the tiller, Ullrich would win the 1991 Berlin district championships in cyclo-cross, on the track and team time trial. Having now officially left school, he and Korff also began apprenticeships at Niles machine tool factory in the north-east of Berlin. Mornings behind a workbench and afternoons on the bike added up to ‘tiring and monotonous’ days, Ullrich said later.

For many of Ullrich’s contemporaries in the East, the door to adulthood had swung open at the same time as one leading to a land of new opportunity. Mark Scheppert’s dad worked alongside Becker as a coach at Dynamo – indeed Becker had given Mark his first bike – and one day Scheppert would write a book, Mauergewinner oder Ein Wessi des Ostens, about the experiences of teenagers, like him and Ullrich, who he felt were the forgotten kids of the Peaceful Revolution. Scheppert’s book is not a lament, more a reflection on the strange and in many respects exhilarating rope swing towards freedom that nonetheless left some ‘Ossis’ suspended between old and new, between their suddenly alienated parents and a false dreamland wire-fenced with suspicion and prejudice.

‘In many ways, I don’t feel different from kids who grew up in the West,’ Scheppert says when we meet in 2015. ‘On 4 November [1989] we were at the demonstration in Alexanderplatz, and it was touch and go, whether they would shoot or not. Dynamo was in a state of emergency. Maybe little Jan Ullrich didn’t know it, lying in his boarding house, but my father and all of the other coaches at Dynamo were armed with revolvers. There were these Monday demonstrations, and the one in Leipzig, in particular, where it wasn’t clear whether they were going to shoot or not . . . So it wasn’t all just fireworks and celebrations. From October, November, December, everyone just remembers the pictures of people dancing on the Wall, but earlier it was very sketchy indeed. I had friends who were two years older and were in the NFA – the army – and they didn’t even know that the Wall had fallen four weeks later. There was a complete news blackout. There was no information.

‘But, yes, as far as what came next was concerned, it was the absolute best time for it to happen to my generation. I wasn’t in the army yet, I was finishing school, no one was asking me to join the Stasi. We’d also not known any different as young kids: you went to the Baltic Sea on holiday and you didn’t notice that you weren’t in the USA. You didn’t have the same toys as kids in the West but you had toys. Then the Wall fell and you could do everything. But then you also realized later that the Brandenburg Gate wasn’t the door to paradise. I’ve lived in the “West” for long enough now to realize there were always backstabbers and corruption here too. The city and country were divided but really both sides had the same problems, humanity’s problems. It was also really tough for my father’s generation. He wasn’t young, and from one day to the next in the March of 1990, he lost his job and had to go and find something else. He had a good reference, saying that he’d been a good coach at Dynamo, but he wasn’t the man he’d been when he’d qualified. And in the West they thought everything coming from the East was just shit. They had to build a new life, whereas for my generation, Jan’s generation, well, we thought life was just beginning.’

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