East meets West in pressure pool

Steven Downes profiles one of the final products of East Germany
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The Independent Online
The pencil-thin girl used her broad shoulders to lever herself wearily out of the pool. Almost unrecognisable with her swim cap pulled down over her forehead, she lifted her goggles up off her pale face to reveal two red rings around her eyes. "Is that it?" she asked the man with the stopwatch. "Just one more," the coach said, "just one more, Franzi."

Franziska van Almsick is only 18, yet she has spent 12 years of her life ploughing up and down the pool of her school in what used to be East Berlin. Having made a splash in Europe, when the Olympics start next weekend Van Almsick aims to make waves on the other side of the Atlantic.

Van Almsick, young, pretty and often feisty, is not only the last product of an East German assembly line for producing championship gold medals, she is also the first international swimmer-as-superstar. It was four years ago at the Barcelona Olympics that Van Almsick was adopted as the sporting heroine of the united Germany. The 14-year-old collected two silver and two bronze medals, and more seemed certain to follow. "A nation's darling", the cover of Stern magazine purred.

Since then, her career has been a roller-coaster ride of "Franzi frenzy" highs, marked by the fabulous celebrity and accompanying wealth, and lows of controversies at her competitions. She was a millionaire before her 15th birthday, and now is rich by anyone's standards. She has endorsements for everything from luxury cars through to walnuts, and an estimated wealth of pounds 5.3m.

Her fame has surpassed that of a mere swimmer. At the European Championships in Vienna last year, even the German handbook, normally a staid publication confined to facts about the team, described her as a "megastar". She replaced Steffi Graf as the German sportswoman of the year in 1992 (a feat she repeated in 1993 and 1995), her looks supplanting those of the supermodel Claudia Schiffer in a series of advertisements.

"Most of it was luck and circumstances," Franzi's mother, Jutta, said. "The media was searching for something, and here was an 'Eastie' who looked good and had a fast mouth." It has been a bumpy ride, the lows often brought about by that fast mouth. It was in Vienna that, in between winning four titles to take her tally of European golds to a record 10, she gave an interview where she confessed to an interest in Adolf Hitler. "If you ask people about Hitler, you just hear that he was evil, totally stupid and killed lots of people. Actually, he was quite clever. I have read Mein Kampf and suddenly understand how he did it." That Mein Kampf is banned in Germany did not seem to bother Franzi.

That she failed to qualify for the final of her best event, the 200 metres freestyle, at the world championships in Rome a year earlier did not bother her either. Half an hour after the heats, it was announced that her team- mate Dagmar Hase - a world and Olympic champion in her own right who had done enough to qualify for the final - had withdrawn. And, hey presto, the ninth-fastest from the heats was called up - Franziska van Almsick. The news was greeted by whistles from the crowd, tears from Hase and whispers in the changing-rooms. Some said a deal had been struck, that Van Almsick had bought her place.

Despite having the unhelpful lane eight at the Foro Italico, Van Almsick went on to win the gold in the final, setting the world record. She denied any deal had been done. "It's an example for our team spirit. Isn't there anyone here who believes that honesty still prevails in sport?"

If there was, it took less than a week to dissuade them of the notion when it emerged Hase had been offered a three-week holiday anywhere in the world for her "gesture", courtesy of Lufthansa. "Now we know exactly what a gold medal is worth," one commentator said. That was two years ago, and while earlier questions had been asked about the swimmer-as-superstar's methods of achieving greatness, now the question to be answered in Atlanta is whether Van Almsick's powers are on the wane. At the world short-course championships in Brazil last December, she walked out after being disqualified for false-starting in the 100m freestyle. Instead of racing, she spent the week doing modelling shoots around the tourist spots of Rio.

This summer, she failed to qualify for the German Olympic team at two of her events, the 100m and 400m freestyle, before setting the fastest time in the world this year, 1min 58.88 sec, at 200m. Because of an earlier performance, she has been added to the team for the 100m. "The Germans will always find a way to accommodate her," one cynical observer said.

But Van Almsick may have lost her appetite for swimming. Since being selected by the East German sports regime at the age of five - after blood tests and measurements of her limbs to assess her potential - Van Almsick has spent four, sometimes five, hours each day in the water, covering up to 30 miles a week. Her decade of dedication paid dividends. "She's as close to a fish as you can get", one coach who has worked with her said.

But cracks have been showing. "Training can become so incredibly boring," she has said. "There are a lot of things I can't do anymore. People recognise me, they want autographs, they want to touch me and, worst of all, I know they are watching every step I take."

The pressure is made all the more intense by the entourage of 20 to 30 correspondents from the German press: every paper in Germany, it seems, now has a Franzi correspondent in addition to their regular swimming writer. "The truth is, I'd like to have more friends," she says, a note of genuine loneliness creeping into her voice. "Everything is too easy for me. I want to meet Boris Becker? No problem. Shopping in New York? I just go. Life loses part of its appeal."

There are other considerations. Although she has maintained a firm anti- drugs stance - "it is better to lose twice than to cheat once" - Van Almsick cannot escape being the product of the former East German regime, which systematically doped most of its top sportswomen. Both her parents were on the payroll of the dreaded Stasi secret police, and the suspicion is that, even though the Berlin Wall was tumbling when she was still only 11, Van Almsick may have been administered drugs. Van Almsick's coach, Dieter Lindemann, in effect "pleaded the fifth" when called upon by a state inquiry into drug use in East Germany, refusing to deny his involvement in the supply of banned drugs.

Now, led by Kristin Otto, the winner of six Olympic golds in Seoul in 1988, more than 60 former swimmers from East Germany have launched a legal case in which they are suing coaches who administered them with drugs during their careers, resulting in some cases in long-term gynaecological side-effects.

It is perhaps the ultimate irony that in Atlanta Van Almsick could become the biggest victim of the very system which cultivated her. For she will find herself swimming against the tide of the Chinese team. In 1986, the year East German swimming coaches went to China for the first time, there were no Chinese in the finals at that year's world championships. At the 1994 world championships, the Chinese women won 12 out of the 16 titles. There is dominance in depth, too: one-third of the places in the world's top 25 rankings are occupied by Chinese women.

The parallels with the East German women's emergence as the premier power in swimming - East Germans won no golds at the 1972 Olympics but took 11 out of 13 at the 1976 Games - are obvious. The principal difference is that in the 1990s some 19 Chinese swimmers have tested positive for banned drugs. Last year it led to the unprecedented step of their entire team being banned from the Pan-Pacific championships.

Van Almsick could, again, have to be satisfied with Olympic silver or bronze, if she wins anything at all. She has much at stake, for a gold- less golden girl has a much-reduced value to the marketing men. Which is probably why she has been getting back in the water in recent months and training hard in her final preparations. "Just one more, Franzi, one more. This one's for gold."