Ice Skating: Witt needs all her wits about her: German star on trial

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The Independent Online
HOW FIT is Witt? The answer will come around 1.30 this afternoon, when Katarina die Grosse (the Great), as the Germans call her, stands trial in the Ruhr town of Herne over her claim for an Olympic place. She will know the answer tomorrow evening. 'I just refuse to accept that at 28 I must be written off as a grandmother,' she said.

Herne is the venue for the German national skating championships and Witt, Olympic gold medalist at Sarajevo in 1984 and at Calgary in 1988, but a showskater- model-actress since, is thrusting herself back into the heat of amateur competition. She faces the eight-element technical programme today and the deciding four-minute free skating tomorrow, after which Germany's selections for Lillehammer will be announced. She was clearly delighted to be drawn 11th in today's 21-strong field. 'If I had been drawn number one or two I would have been gritting my teeth.' In her corner, moreover, will be Jutta Muller, the mentor of all her successes.

Along with a score of other professionals, including Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Witt has regained her Olympic eligibility but unlike the British dancers, whose selection has been waved through, she must fight for her place.

Germany has the right to two women contestants in Norway and four are in the frame. Ranged against Witt today will be Tanja Szewczenko, a 16-year-old from Dortmund but with roots in the Ukraine; another Ruhr local, Marina Kielmann, 25, the title-holder from Dusseldorf, and Simone Lang, formerly of the same East German stable as Witt. All three have a wider variety of jumps than Witt but it will be a question of who cracks up first.

Witt, known disparagingly as 'the beautiful face of socialism', suffers the stigma of being not only an 'Ossi' (East German) but also an Erich Honecker favourite. Her wealth and popularity in North America seem to have insulated her from this constant tabloid onslaught. She has even thanked the former DDR regime for making her what she is. 'I have nothing to be ashamed of,' she has said. 'All I got I earned the hard way.'

None can dispute that. The record of the statuesque Saxon from Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) - four world, six European and two Olympic titles between 1983 and 1988 - is unsurpassed. She has the gold medal of the Olympic Order and, as a Juan Samaranch favourite, might have rescued Berlin's bid for the 2000 Games had the blinkered Germans chosen her and not the lacklustre Steffi Graf as their frontwoman at Monte Carlo.

Should her rivals not crack up, then Witt, brought to peak condition by Frank Dick, British athletics' director of coaching, must dig deep to prevent the music she has chosen, Marlene Dietrich's Where Have all the Flowers Gone?, turning from an anti-war ballad and riposte to her German doubters into a lament.