STAND-UP comics, armchair commentators, and the Western media all thought they had East Germany's disproportionate success in international sports competitions figured out. It was a cradle-to-gold-medal production line turning out high-performance drones. Secret drug programs made men into Supermenschen, and women into whatever; and a win-or-visit-Siberia message came down from the political heights to motivate athletes through fear. Then came Katarina Witt, and the formula would no longer compute. The 22-year-old figure skater from this industrial city near the Czech border has a personality that wins fans around the world, is stunningly beautiful, and seems driven by a genuine sense of indebtedness to socialism.
As she approaches the Winter Olympics in Calgary and the end of her competitive career, Witt matter-of-factly shares the credit for her 1984 Olympic gold, her three world championship titles, and her six European titles: ``There is no way I would have achieved this success in another country.''
Since the age of 6, when walks home from kindergarten brought her past the Keuchwald Ice Stadium on the outskirts of the city, Witt has indeed followed her country's carefully programmed path to athletic stardom. Perhaps more than any other East German sports figure, Witt personifies the message that the country's leadership wants its athletic emissaries to carry after decades of political isolation in the shadow of West Germany: We are proud. We have arrived.
``We know how to judge ourselves,'' says Witt's coach, Jutta M"uller, in describing the mentality of her country's athletes. ``We don't overestimate ourselves, but we most surely don't underestimate ourselves.''
``In a capitalist country,'' Witt argued at a recent press conference here, ``my parents could not even have afforded my training.'' When pressed, however, Witt and other East German sports figures admit that very early talent replaces financial means as a discriminating factor in the country's athletic programs.
East Germany's Constitution mandates that ``the state and society shall encourage the participation of citizens in ... physical culture and sport in order to aid the comprehensive development of socialist personality traits.'' In practice, this means that the East German Communist Party spends several hundred million marks and deploys a vast bureaucracy to ensure that no budding talent is left undiscovered.
On the ice at Keuchwald, first-grader Katarina quickly excelled, and was accepted in the Children and Youth Sports School - one of more than 20 such schools in East Germany that mix intense athletic training with a standard curriculum. At age 10, Witt entered the stable of the legendary M"uller, who in her 30-year career has also coached such stars as Gabrielle Seifert and 1980 Olympic champion Anett P"otzsch to more than 50 international medals.
As do most East German coaches, M"uller became an ersatz parent to her young charge. ``I've spent more time with her than with my parents,'' says Witt. ``It's her that I go to with my problems.'' M"uller claims that the parents of all of her skaters have accepted this diminished role in their children's lives. If so, this is probably because parents hope their children will attain the many privileges associated with athletic stardom in East Germany.
The country's sports regime can be seen as a pyramid. At the bottom, every citizen has the right to join the national Gymnastics and Sports Federation for a nominal fee that gives them access to athletic facilities and participation in a system of mini-Olympics. Coaches, educated at East Germany's secretive University of Physical Culture in Leipzig, are trained to spot young participants with the greatest potential.
These youngsters are invited, as was Witt, to enroll in one of the sports boarding schools. Often, this means living at some distance from parents and old friends. If they continue to perform well, athletes are accepted at high school age into elite sports clubs from which East Germany's Olympic teams are chosen. All of East Germany's competing athletes follow this road; late bloomers, as a result, have little chance.
East German sports officials argue that the system is humane, because it doesn't raise false hopes in those who would best remain weekend athletes. More skeptical outsiders wonder if the products of East Germany's sports-education regime can still be called ``amateurs'' in any sense of the word. ``The athlete here is not paid anything,'' counters Werner T"urke, chief spokesman of the Gymnastics and Sports Federation. ``He is simply provided with whatever he needs so as not to worry about anything but sports.''
What this means is that Witt and other athletes of her caliber bypass the years-long waiting lists for cars and good apartments in East Germany, and enjoy Western clothes and electronic gadgetry unimaginable to the average citizen.
``When there are shortages of certain items, the state must make choices,'' explains T"urke. ``Those choices follow the `Principle of Achievement.' Individuals reap rewards based on what they achieve for society.''
What East German athletes achieve, so the political thinking goes, is the international prestige and domestic legitimation that comes from outperforming countries many times East Germany's size. ``I do play a political role,'' says Witt. ``If we, as a tiny socialist country, do well in sports, it's a mark of distinction internationally. Of course, the workers lay the foundations for society so that we can even have sports. Perhaps by providing some nice moments on TV, we athletes can say a small `thank you.'''
By rewarding sports figures generously for their efforts, and by providing for political as well as athletic education through the sports-school system, the East German leadership gets an effective diplomatic corps. Defections are rare.
It is difficult to determine how this actually plays among the East German people. While many take pride in East Germany's sports triumphs and send Witt the fan mail to prove it, others see some irony in an athletic star system coexisting with their own minimalist life styles. ``Why can a top athlete aspire to wealth and foreign travel when workers in most other fields cannot?'' such people ask.
Vast resources continue to be spent in East Germany on media coverage of sporting events, and on research into athletic training and sports medicine.
Little in East German athletic competition is left to chance. That drugs such as steroids have sometimes been used by East German athletes in hopes of further improving the odds remains an unverified rumor that the country's sports officials dismiss out of hand.
As for Katarina Witt, the Calgary Olympics will probably present the most difficult challenge of her career as she attempts to become the first two-time winner of the women's title since Norway's Sonja Henie captured gold medals in 1928, 1932, and '36. ``The American skaters will be my toughest competition,'' Witt says as she prepares to meet the challenges of three younger US stars - Debi Thomas (20), Jill Trenary (19), and Caryn Kadavy (20).
None of this three were at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, four years ago when Witt beat out another American, Rosalynn Sumners, for the gold. But all three have come along strongly since then, with Thomas even dethroning an uncharacterically error-prone Witt at the 1986 world championships only to have Katarina battle back and regain the crown last year.
So Witt enters the major 1988 competitions as the defending champion at both the Olympics and the world championships, but the expectation is that she won't continue much longer. And with no new Katarina on the East German figure-skating horizon, this year could be a last hurrah for the 59-year-old M"uller as well.
Indeed, as M"uller coifs, costumes, and choreographs Witt one last time, a golden chapter in the country's figure-skating history may be coming to a close. But if past performances are any guide, it's a good guess the East Germans will not wait very long before writing a new one.