He's Free at Last to Swim in Seoul : Berndt Overjoyed to Be Able to Compete for West Germany

Times Staff Writer

Jens-Peter Berndt wept four years ago as he sat in front of his family's television watching the opening ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympics.

Tears streamed down the East German swimmer's cheeks as he watched Western television accounts of what was supposed to be his Olympics.

"Instead, it was the moment when all my illusions were shattered," Berndt said.

"Swimming in the Olympics had been my dream, my quest, and I was in my prime. But the boycott caught me, and what could I do? I was manipulated by politics. I was so frustrated. I just sat there and cried."

Berndt cried again Tuesday, but this time, they were tears of joy.

Cleared by the International Olympic Committee to swim for West Germany in the Seoul Olympics 3 1/2 years after he defected to the United States, Berndt said he feels truly free for the first time.

"I feel very lucky," he said in an interview from Hamburg, West Germany. "I'm so glad it's over with. I have a lot of hard work ahead, but I am ready."

After an unsuccessful battle for United States citizenship, Berndt, who trained with the Nadadores at Mission Viejo in 1985, moved to West Germany in May and qualified for its Olympic team in four events. But he could not swim without IOC approval. According to IOC rules, a defector must have been a citizen of the country of his choice for three years to be eligible for the Games.

The key question was whether the IOC would honor the West German constitution, which states that all naturally born citizens of East Germany automatically are citizens of West Germany, too.

The 11-member IOC Executive Committee appointed a three-member panel to study the legalities of the law. In a session that lasted just 10 minutes Tuesday at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, the panel recommended that Berndt be allowed to swim, and the Executive Committee agreed.

"The IOC could not destroy the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany for this one case," Marc Holder, a Swiss attorney and panel member, said. "We have 160 national Olympic committees, and we could not selectively disregard the rules of one. According to West German law, he was born a West German citizen. We had to abide by that."

The news came as a welcome relief to Berndt, his family and friends and those within the West German sports structure. All were braced for weeks of waiting. Many feared that the East Germans would protest his presence, but they never got the chance. Once the IOC decided that Berndt had been a citizen of West Germany for more than three years, East Germany was out of the picture.

"We were afraid it might go right up to Seoul," West German Olympic Coach Gureeger Greeve said. "We were prepared to take him to Seoul and wait on a decision. But this is great. Now he can put all these troubles out of his mind and train."

"It would have been very cruel to make him wait until Seoul, and I'm glad it didn't come to that," said West German butterfly specialist Michael Gross, who won two gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics. "You cannot train hard if you're not sure you will get to compete. Now he can train without distractions."

Former Mission Viejo coach Mark Schubert of the Mission Bay club in Boca Raton, Fla., lauded the decision as "just and fair."

"I'm very happy for Peter," he said. "As his coach, it's a great feeling for me, though I'm disappointed he won't be swimming for the U.S. team. But the fact that he's getting a chance to fulfill his dream is the most important thing."

When he learned of the decision in a telephone conversation with Greeve, Berndt popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and celebrated with his friends in Geneva, Switzerland.

"It's funny, I was just 50 miles away from the IOC headquarters and I was the last one to find out," he said. "I cannot describe how I felt at that moment. So many dreams. So many hopes. Such a long time of waiting and hoping."

Much has changed in the 17 years since he first dreamed of swimming in the Olympics.

"It has lost something through all these ordeals," he said. "When I was young, I thought the Olympics was something special that couldn't be touched by politics or anything else. But I learned differently. I became disillusioned. Then it was a dream that I wanted to reach. Now it's more the principle of making it and doing it for all the people who have pulled for me."

Some are pulling for Berndt in ways he does not like. Even before he moved to West Germany, he feared being used as a political pawn against East Germany. Already, some newspapers have begun spouting Cold War rhetoric that he wishes he could stop.

"I don't want to make my swimming a political issue," he said. "I do not want to hurt my country."

In a statement, West German Olympic Committee President Wilwe Daume tried to diffuse the political tension. "This is a victory for the Federal Republic and for Peter Berndt," he said. "But it is not a victory against (the East Germans)."

But Berndt said he is trying to block out such distractions so he can win, not just compete, in Seoul.

If he is to contend for medals in Seoul, he must improve the times he set in the West German trials. His time of 4 minutes 21.40 seconds in the 400 individual medley was three seconds off his former world record.

"Traditionally, I don't do well in trials," he said. "I usually peak for the main event. I'm confident I can improve my times. I wasn't happy with the times I turned in, but I will do better. I must do better."

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