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Same East German Talent, New Approach : Gymnastics: Political changes have opened the door for the team’s first visit to the United States in 11 years.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When East German gymnasts were told they were going to the United States, they said they envisioned skyscrapers. Instead, they got the suburbs of Memphis.

Nevertheless, the fact that the East German gymnasts are here for the first time in 11 years, for a dual meet against the United States, signifies the political changes taking place in their country.

This meet--the women compete today and the men Sunday--may be among the last times East Germany will compete internationally under its own flag. By 1992 East and West Germany are expected to reunify and compete as one.

Probably more significant of the changes, however, is who’s not here.

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Andreas Wecker, one of East Germany’s top male gymnasts, stayed home partly because of an injury. That injury, though, is not keeping him from commuting to West Germany to help train athletes. The West Germans may even hire Wecker, even though he would still compete for East Germany until reunification.

“Seen from yesterday’s point of view, this would not be OK,” Klaus Heller, the general secretary of the German Democratic Republic Gymnastics Federation said Thursday at the Mid-South Coliseum, where the meet will be held. “But this same thing, seen from tomorrow’s view, yes.”

For years, U.S. Gymnastics Federation officials have asked the East Germans to come to the United States, but the requests were denied. The GDR had not sent a gymnastics team to the United States since 1979, for the World Championships at Ft. Worth.

“We have had a good rapport and always felt a warmth from the East Germans, but often we could not get into their country and, certainly, they never came here,” said Robert Cowan, a USGF official. “But after the Wall fell (in November), it was easy.”

So here they are, in the city of the king--Elvis--of whom even these gymnasts say they have heard. But Graceland will have to wait until Monday. The East Germans are working out here twice a day, once with the Americans, once in a private gym. And this competition is merely an exhibition.

U.S. gymnasts conducted interviews between workouts Thursday, but East German officials said their gymnasts could not talk until the workout was over. Then, as soon as they finished, they were hurried out the door and into a waiting van. Officials said their gymnasts were through talking for the day. But they had never talked at all. And this happened on media day.

But Heller says these training methods set the East Germans apart and will be of help to the West Germans, who did not qualify in gymnastics for the 1988 Olympics. East and West German gymnasts will begin working out together in May in East Berlin and in Frankfurt.

“Our gymnasts practice about five hours a day, the same as West Germany, but our method and intensity is different,” said Heller, speaking through an interpreter. “It is the same quantity, but the quality is different.”

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East German gymnasts don’t appear to be worried about the increased competition.

“West Germany can’t catch up with us,” said Baerbel Wielgoss, one of East Germany’s top female gymnasts.

In comparison, U.S. women gymnasts also practice about five hours a day. They finished fourth at the 1989 World Championships, one place ahead of the East Germans. And at the 1988 Olympics, a technical error by the United States gave East Germany the bronze medal. That technical violation was called on the United States by an East German judge.

The U.S. men, because of college demands, train about three hours a day. In comparison, Cowan, who recently returned from East Germany, said the men there train twice a day, about three to four hours each time, and attend school in between training sessions.

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At the 1989 World Championships, East Germany finished second to the Soviets. The United States tied for eighth.

“Our men can’t train that many hours,” Cowan said. “In East Germany, the focus of their athletes is gymnastics, and their lives are built around that. In the United States, the men’s focus is college, or school, and gymnastics is built around that. Their kids don’t work any harder than ours, they just work longer, more hours.”

East Germany also draws from a much larger pool of elite gymnasts. Its program has about 1,000 male and female elites, with 400,000 gymnasts overall, and 250 coaches. The United States has about 100 male and 100 female elites.

The methods employed by the East German sports system, the so-called miracle machine, are often criticized by Western countries. Its talent development program identifies young athletes and assigns them to government-run sports clubs for training. That helps explain how a country with a population of fewer than 17 million could become a medal factory.

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Since 1968, only the Soviet Union and the United States have won more medals. And in the medal count for both the 1988 Winter and Summer Olympics, East Germany was second to the Soviet Union.

Heller, secretary of the gymnastics federation for six years, said he would like to dispel the idea that athletes must compete against their will, and that children are taken from their homes against their parents’ wishes.

He admits that talented young gymnasts are identified and moved to government-operated sports clubs, usually at age 10, but he says they have a choice. He says that only half the athletes live away from home. The others stay with their parents because they have clubs in their cities.

Wielgoss, 17, says there is a club in her hometown of Rostock, so she has always lived at home with her parents.

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Also, Heller says, elite gymnasts or their families do not benefit from material or economic gain--unless they win. Then they can receive about $20,000 per gold medal. Furthermore, Heller says gymnasts can even quit--and always could--with no ramifications.

For example, Heller said Doerte Thuemmler, one of their top women, quit last year at 17, before the new government took over. And Anke Wilkenloh, 18, another star, quit four weeks ago.

"(Anke) told me, ‘I quit, I am finished,’ ” Heller said. “I told her the advantages of staying, that she would get a three-week vacation in the United States with her parents after the Goodwill Games. Still, she said no.”

What lies ahead for East German sports is uncertain. Seemingly, the new government doesn’t care as much about developing athletes. The centralized system of long-term planning, which has been so effective, is now being criticized by supporters of the new government.

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Then-East German prime minister Hans Modrow said in a speech in December that the country will place as much emphasis on recreational sports for all citizens as it does on developing elite athletes for international competition. That means less money for the sports federations.

Heller thinks that the number of elite athletes may stay the same, but the number of coaches may be cut in half. So, while the changes are met by East German officials with joy and expectation on one hand, there are economic concerns on the other.

The positive changes, Heller said, are certain to be a better opportunity for travel and perhaps even better nutrition for the athletes.

“For now, things are the same,” Heller said. “But there will be a new situation in July.”

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At that time, West Germany’s Deutsch mark will also become East Germany’s currency.

Added Heller: "(Up) to now, there was no unemployment in the GDR, not only in sports, but in any industry. That is not so well known by others.

“We will see. We wait.”


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