Escape via Elevator Shaft: East Germany's 'Traitor Athletes' Tell their Stories

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More than 600 athletes fled the German Democratic Republic. They were branded "traitor athletes" and many were pursued by East Germany's secret police, the Stasi. Cyclist Jürgen Kissner managed to escape. A new exhibit in Berlin tells their stories.

Cyclist Jürgen Kissner is one of at least 615 East German athletes who fled the GDR. Zoom
Oliver Tjaden / DER SPIEGEL

Cyclist Jürgen Kissner is one of at least 615 East German athletes who fled the GDR.

"Keep peddling, pick up the pace!" the wiry man with the closely-cropped gray hair barks. "Always only pass above," he adds. Stopwatch in hand, Jürgen Kissner stands trackside in the Cologne velodrome, becoming more impassioned with every lap he watches his cycling students make. "Push yourself," he yells at the cyclists frantically peddling past. "Lift your butt off the seat, kid!"

Kissner, 68, teaches at the German Sport University Cologne, where he works as a trainer two times per week, earning €32.40 ($46.64) per hour. The certified athletic instructor introduced cycling into the school's curriculum some 40 years ago. His students call him by his first name, "Jürgen," but only a small number of them know his story.

Kissner was once a two-time cycling champion in East Germany. He later was a champion in West Germany, and a silver medalist with West Germany's four-man relay team at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He is among the elite East German athletes who escaped to the West. Upon leaving the GDR, they went from being celebrated as exemplary citizens to being branded as traitors.

Kissner came from what is now the state of Brandenburg, and was not permitted to engage in athletic studies because his family was considered to be part of the reactionary middle class, since his father was a doctor. This motivated him to flee to the West. Now Kissner has allowed himself to relive this past and to take part in an exhibit of the Center for German Sports History marking the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall.

The exhibit's name "ZOV Traitor Athletes," refers to the "Zentralen Operativen Vorgang," or the major operation through which the Stasi, former East Germany's secret police, gathered information about athletes who fled the GDR. Such reconnaisance was used to plan East German retaliation for what was seen as the athletes' treachery. The multimedia exhibit, an initiative of artist Laura Soria, highlights this history and the athletes who played a part in it and opened in Berlin's Willy Brandt House on July 22.

Through the Elevator Shaft

From 1950 to August 1989, the Stasi compiled records on 615 athletes who had fled the GDR. But not all cases were reported and the actual number is thought to be much higher. The Stasi "processed" 63 athletes through the ZOV initiative, hoping to find out their possible backers, since they suspected that many escapees were poached via targeted efforts from the West. It was not until November 1989 that these suspicions were dropped, and the closing report on the matter was filed. Some athletes who fled, like track and field pro Jürgen May, did enlist the aid of professional escape agents. Others, like gymnast Wolfgang Thüne, were brought over the border with help from their western competition.

Kissner managed to make it out in 1964, with the help of an old schoolmate living in Cologne. The city was hosting a qualification race for the Olympics to determine who would join the then-German national team in Tokyo that year. GDR athletes, unlike the majority of the East German population, were allowed to see the world, which in many cases fuelled the desire break free of GDR borders. And every trip was an opportunity to do so. Kissner disappeared by climbing up through the elevator shaft of the hotel where his team was staying in Cologne.

One day after his escape, the Stasi brought his mother to Cologne. The secret police often used family members who had been left behind as pawns in attempts to lure back deserting athletes. Seeing his mother was supposed to move Kissner to return home.

But the cyclist's friend succeeded in secretly transporting Kissner's mother to his hiding place, making sure that the taxi she was in was not followed by the Stasi officer who had been accompanying her. At an inn, the mother and son were able to speak privately. She later lied to the Stasi, telling them her son was not recognizable, and that he had probably been drugged. Agents dismissed the case as an instance of kidnapping.

Doping on Both Sides of the Wall

Kissner had reached his goal but disappointment soon followed. The friend who had helped him flee sold his escape story to the tabloid press. "He sold me out," says Kissner. Kissner got 500 deutsche marks from the deal. His friend made a five-figure profit. The incident ended their friendship.

Problems also arose with his new teammates. Kissner was part of the four-man West German relay team in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, and they were favored for the gold. But in the final race against Denmark, Kissner lightly pressed a teammate with his hand, a reflex that had little to no effect -- but was against the rules. East German officials tattled about the illegal touch. As a result, the Danes, although they had lost on the track, took home the gold medal.

As the "communist pig" of the team, Kissner felt responsible. He then left to work as a trainer and teacher.

He's won 249 cycling races and suffered two herniated discs "from strength training." He believes that doping took place on both sides of the Berlin Wall. In the East athletes took a "support substance" known as UM ("Ünterstutzungsmittel"). In the West it was referred to as a "medical substance," or simply MV ("Medizinischesmittel"). He doesn't know specifics.

One winter in Kienbaum, where many athletes trained for the Olympics, the athletes were given "hot syrup." Later, Kissner learned from a sports medicine doctor in Leipzig that he had probably been given arsenic, possibly with the aim of stimulating blood-cell formation and toughening the liver.

Talking of it now, Kissner just shrugs his shoulders, and says: "That's why I can drink so much today."

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