Wall Came Down Too Late for Athlete Who Spoke Out

Ted Williams lost most of five years of his athletic career (1943-45, 1952-53) in the service of his country.

But they didn't torture him or make him stand in a cell full of cold water while they slipped platefuls of stale sausage and rancid white margarine on a steel tray under his door.

Joe DiMaggio lost three years of his career in the service of his country.

But they didn't haul him out of his car on a crowded street, slam cast-iron handcuffs on him and spirit him off to hours of relentless interrogation in a room without sleep and a white-hot light shining in his eyes.

Hank Greenberg lost most of 1941 to 1945 in the service of his country. He played in only 19 games in '41 and only 78 in '45.

But they didn't make him sleep on a plank in a cement cubicle 26 feet long by 10 feet wide by 14 feet high with barbed wire for a ceiling and a soldier with a submachine gun for a companion.

Wolfgang Schmidt lost about eight years of his athletic career and says he spent 489 days of that in solitary confinement with a peephole with a red eye in it for his only human contact, save for the few horrifying hours in the glare of a spotlight and brainwash interrogation.

You might say he spent the time in the service of his country. But, the way he sees it, except for torturing him, his country would have nothing to do with him. When he got out of prison, he was ostracized, stripped of any mention of his achievements, passed over for jobs--a non-person.

Wolfgang Schmidt's country was the late unlamented East Germany, and he was one of its most famous athletes until he became one of its most famous outcasts. He had won the silver medal in the discus at the 1976 Olympics. He had set the world record in the event. He was the Communist world's ornament, proof positive of the superiority of their way of life.

Except that Wolfgang Schmidt didn't want to be a Communist athlete. He wanted to be an athlete, period. He thought the system reeked of hypocrisy, repression and government by terror.

He found out how right he was when he began to sound off on how much better things were in the West and to wish he could pursue his sport there without the restrictions and restraints of his own form of government.

Then, he committed the unpardonable: He finished fourth in the Moscow Olympics and then ran out on the field at Lenin Stadium and shook his fist in anger at the crowd and officials. He thought--and still thinks--the Soviets had cheated athletes from other countries in those '80 boycotted Olympics, but the hostility of the crowd had even more deeply offended him. He had thought they were brothers.

To have gone on the sacred soil of the father of communism, the sainted Lenin himself, and raised a defiant fist was proof positive he was an enemy of the state, a tool of the West, a spy even. Cars filled with the dreaded secret police, the Stasi, began to tail him. His phone was tapped. His father, a dedicated Marxist, was furious with him. He was disgracing the family. (He sure was. When he fell from grace, the Communists visited the sins of the son on the father, Ernst, by punishing him and removing him from his job as a sports director--and coach of the throwing events--for the East German sports machine.)

It was the police state at its worse.

Interrogation, Schmidt says, was by a lizard-eyed, reptilian secret policeman who would have made a nice part for Peter Lorre. He blew smoke in Wolfgang's face and tried to get him to admit to any number of nameless unspeakable crimes against the regime. Schmidt's only real crime against the regime was, he despised it.

So, it turned out, did many of the other 17 million living under it. But Wolfgang, released from prison before the Wall came down, was not permitted to work out at any of the state-owned facilities in 1983. They made sure he was unfit, as well as ineligible, for inclusion in the 1984 Olympics.

Ironically, when he finally managed to get to the West--he could hardly be called "defecting" since the regime was crumbling by the hour by that time--he could not compete for his new allegiance, West Germany, because of a mandatory one-year waiting period for change of citizenship.

His country had now stripped Wolfgang of eight years of competition, two Olympics. He did not compete in a world-class meet for six years.

The country is now defunct. Some of the people who threw one of their greatest athletes in prison are now in prison themselves (or on the lam from it in Moscow).

But Wolfgang Schmidt is unwilling to cede tyranny its last victory over human rights. Big brother is gone, sport remains. Tyranny is short; art, long.

Wolfgang Schmidt, picking up the pieces and training rigorously in San Jose, will compete this weekend in the Mt. SAC Relays at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. Now a resident of Stuttgart, he hopes to make up for lost years and crushed hopes. He would like to shake his fist at Lenin's tomb once again before he quits.

He will be 38 by the time the Barcelona Olympics roll around. Still, Ted Williams came back to hit 197 of his 521 home runs (and bat .388 one year) after his second sabbatical. DiMaggio hit 142 of his 361 homers and batted .300 four times after his, and Hank Greenberg hit 82 of his 331 homers after his.

Of course, they never had to eat bread and water--or stand in it up to their ankles for weeks at a time.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World