Germany debates not an Olympic rower's form, but her choice of boyfriend

A national debate exploded after media reports that athlete Nadja Drygalla's boyfriend was linked to the far-right NPD party. Now, her rowing future may be in question.

Jim Young/REUTERS
Germany's Nadja Drygalla prepares for a training session at Eton Dorney before the London 2012 Olympic Games July 25.

Even as German athletes in London have claimed seven gold medals, from cycling to dressage, German officials, the media, and much of the public have been fixated on another Olympic story: the social life of a German rower.

Normally, the boyfriend of Nadja Drygalla, a member of the women's 8, would not be a matter of public concern. But Michael Fischer was, at least until recently, a member of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD).

Ms. Drygalla left the Olympic village last week after officials raised the issue with her, even though she has never been associated with any far-right statements or actions. Once her departure became public, a debate ignited over right-wing extremism in sports, underscoring in the process the deep sensitivity about neo-Nazi groups in postwar Germany.

“It is the right impulse to be very cautious when it comes to extremism in Germany,” argues Michael Kohlstruck, senior researcher at The Center for Research on Antisemitism in Berlin. “But that also caused a number of overreactions in the past and the case of Ms. Drygalla is one of it.”

Dierk Borstel, an expert on right-wing extremism at the University of Bielefeld, is also surprised at the waves the case has been making.

“The question is if someone from the far-right milieu can represent Germany,” he says. But, he adds, “so far, there is nothing you can hold against Ms. Drygalla except her choice of boyfriend.”

Mr. Borstel, who worked for 12 years with people trying to leave extremist groups, says that for those willing to leave, private relationships are often a way out.

Burden on relationship

Drygalla's involvement with Fischer was known to officials long before the start of the 2012 Olympics, in part as a member of the police force in Rostock – a town in former East Germany that has been associated with right-wing activity. In a statement on its website, the state Interior Ministry in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania said that Drygalla's private acquaintances came to its attention last year, and, after intensive talks, Drygalla resigned form the police force last September.

In an interview with the German press agency DPA after she left London, Ms. Drygalla said that her boyfriend’s political views had been a huge burden on their relationship. Fischer ran in a regional election for the NPD party in 2011 and has been known as a leading member of the extremist group Rostock National Socialists.

The German newspaper "Die Welt" reports that prosecutors in Rostock are investigating a potential violation of public peace. Fischer and several other persons are accused of having disturbed a public service for a victim of right-wing violence in February, a spokesperson from the public attorney's office in Rostock confirmed. Fischer could face six months to 10 years jail time.

“I have no connection to his circle of friends and this scene, and I reject it completely,” the 23-year-old said. Moreover, both Drygalla and Fischer say that he quit the NPD in May. If he left all right-wing circles, though, remains doubtful, says Borstel.

Many observers question how this whole incident could have happened, noting in particular the lack of official support as Drygalla came under the intense scrutiny. Politicians were also quick to pile on, arguing about extremism in sport, but not about whether Drygalla's privacy had been violated. “There was snooping going on in Ms. Drygalla's private life that is unacceptable,” says Mr. Kohlstruck.

Borstel, for his part, blames sports officials for not protecting her. After Drygalla quit the police force, officials should have been aware of the sensitive issue, he argues. And it was only after Drygalla – whose competition was over – left the athletes' village that the chairman of the national rowing association, Siegfried Kaidel, said the association would hold further talks with her after the Games. Drygalla has expressed her desire to continue rowing on the national team, though that may now be in doubt.

Commitment to democracy

The Interior Ministry is discussing, in response to the furor, whether to compel sports stars to make a public commitment to democracy, a spokesman said this week. But that is controversial as well. “That wouldn’t do a liberal democracy any good,” says Kohlstruck. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich dropped those plans after public criticism. 

And slowly, voices defending her are getting more attention. One of them is Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere, who said it is a private matter who an athlete's friends are.

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