Awash in Red Tape

East German Swimmer Berndt's Final Olympic Option: West Germany
By Keith Dunnavant
Los Angeles Times
1988

Jens-Peter Berndt stood on the edge of free West Berlin recently, just short of the barbed wire, armed guards and watch towers, and gazed across the Berlin Wall into the life he left behind.

In the distance, he could see the town where he grew up. But Potsdam, East Germany, though within his sight, was beyond his grasp. Berndt could not cross the border to find his father and make him understand. Nor could he see his old friends, who, if they were good East Germans, now pretended the 6-foot-6 world-class swimmer had never existed.

The wall that kept him in for so long kept him out now, 3 ½ years after he walked away from his teammates at Oklahoma City's Will Rogers Airport, asked for political asylum and set his sights on new goals.

"I was so close but I knew that I could not take that next step," Berndt said. "It was such a strange feeling. I could see my home but I could not reach out and touch it. In East Germany, I am considered a traitor and a deserter [from the army]. I was closer to home than I had been in three years, but I felt a million miles away."

Berndt's dream of swimming in the Seoul Olympics remains equally elusive, thanks to an International Olympic Committee rule that ultimately leaves his fate in the hands of his former countrymen.

In May, Berndt abandoned a two-year battle for U.S. citizenship and hopes of swimming for the U.S. team. He moved to West Germany to establish residency, the only requirement he had to meet to qualify as a West German in hopes of making its Olympic team. On Wednesday, he swam the 400-meter individual medley in a national record of 4 minutes, 21.4 seconds. That ranks him fifth in the world, six seconds off the world record of Hungary's Thomas Darnyi. He also qualified in the 200 backstroke with a second-place time of 2:02.35.

But one more hurdle remains. When the West Germans present their roster to the IOC Monday, the East Germans will have a chance to protest. The IOC then could sustain East Germany's objection or overrule it and allow Berndt to compete.

"I am confident they will not protest," Berndt, a former member of the Mission Viejo Nadadores, said from Hamburg, West Germany, where he is training. "But I'm trying not to think about what might happen. It's not something I control, so I don't worry about it. It might detract from my training. If that happens, great, I can continue my dream. If not, I go on to something else."

Berndt, 24, has grown accustomed to such uncertainty. Less than a week after his Jan. 7, 1985 "walk to freedom," Berndt enrolled at the University of Alabama, a swimming power, and got more of an education than he bargained for. His three years there were a trail of disappointments that included NCAA eligibility snafus, a cheating scandal and the unsuccessful two-year battle for citizenship that, when abandoned last month, forced Berndt to take his quest to his homeland's chief political and economic rival.

It was a decision Berndt wanted to avoid at all costs. He said he harbors no ill feelings toward East Germany. He said he still thinks the communist way is good in many respects, and he does not want his case manipulated to embarrass his homeland.

"I do not want to become a political pawn," he said.

"I did not want to be used as a Cold War instrument against East Germany. I defected for personal reasons, not for politics."

But Berndt took the chance, because it was his only one.

Soon after Germany was divided after World War II, countless thousands began sneaking across the border to the West, fleeing the East German regime. The West German government wanted to make it easy for those refugees to blend into its culture, so it declared that all East German citizens were citizens of West Germany, too. This rule remained even after the East Germans built the Berlin Wall in 1961, partly because a large minority in the West clings to slim hopes of a reunified Germany. Taking advantage of the easy West German immigration law was a move Berndt made only as a last resort.

"I wanted very badly to swim for the U.S.," he said. "I'm very disappointed. It wasn't easy for me to make the decision to come over here. But it was my only chance. Swimming in the Olympics is very important to me."

And if this door should slam in his face, Berndt's swimming career could be sunk.

"It would be very difficult for him to continue if this doesn't work out," said Coach Mark Schubert, formerly of Mission Viejo and now with the Mission Bay club in Boca Raton, Fla. He has worked with Berndt since his defection.

"He sure could have helped us," Richard Quick, the U.S. coach, said. "He could be a medal winner. I did everything I could to help him get his citizenship."

Although only U.S. citizens are supposed to be allowed to train in USOC-sanctioned camps, Quick allowed Berndt to attend several events. He and others bent the rules because they thought it was only a matter of time until Berndt became a citizen.

"I stuck my neck out," Quick said. "I was hoping, like a lot of people."

Berndt trained with Alabama Coach Don Gambril, the 1984 U.S. Olympic coach, while going to school and competing for the Crimson Tide, and he trained with Schubert during the summer. He spent the summer of 1985 with Schubert and the Natadores, then followed him to Mission Bay in '86. Berndt left Mission Bay in May to begin training with the West German team.

"If a coach was to describe the perfect swimmer, Peter would be about as close as you could get," Schubert said. "He has the height, the build, the flexibility, the speed, everything it takes."

As a young age-group swimmer in East Germany, Berndt developed almost equal skills in the four basic strokes - breaststroke, butterfly, backstroke and freestyle. So he found fame in swimming the individual medley, the combination of the four. It is that versatility that makes Berndt such a valuable commodity.

"But he's getting older," Schubert said. "And even more than that, it would be hard for him to go another four years without some kind of motivation. And motivation is the name of this game."

Motivation never seemed to be a problem for Berndt in his homeland. The more records he set, the more luxuries he received. Though the average East German often encounters shortages and endures waiting lists for even the most basic items, Berndt was no average East German.

In the summer of '84, he set the world record of 4:18.29 in the 400 individual medley, earning him the Order of the Fatherland, his country's second-highest honor. A member of the Communist Party, he was given a commission of lieutenant in the army, a big apartment, a nice car and recognition as a national hero.

"I had a good life," Berndt said.

Good, but not free.

While his teammates boarded a connecting flight in Oklahoma City after an international meet in Arkansas, Berndt walked into the airport manager's office carrying only a Walkman with eight cassettes and $17, and said he wanted to stay. Berndt said he did it because it was easy, and because he had no reason to go back. But even after he made a conscious decision to seek a new life, the remnants of the old one tugged at his subconscious.

On the outside, the adjustments seemed to come so easily. A few days after his arrival in Tuscaloosa, Ala., he showed up at the Alabama Aquatic Center wearing a diamond earring in his left lobe: Western decadence condensed into one symbolic fashion statement.

But when Berndt pulled up the covers at night, he had to fight demons that no symbols could scare away. In the dream that would not let him rest, he returned to East Germany to say goodbye to his family and friends. A woman would spot him at the airport and say, "There is Berndt. There is the defector. Get him!" He would run aboard a Swiss airliner and beg the pilot to fly him to safety. But the police would surround the plane, trapping Berndt inside. There, when his capture appeared imminent, he invariably woke up, his heart pounding and his sheets soaked.

Though the dreams subsided after a few months, Berndt still has to deal with the letters that continue to arrive, surely examined by the East German government, from his father, Friedhelm.

At first, the letters were written with anger. His father wanted him to apologize to the government and to come home. And the emotion ripped at Berndt, though he had not been close to his father, especially after his mother died of leukemia in 1981. Those first few months of letters made the transition difficult. But Berndt slowly adjusted, with the help of many new friends, including Tom and Becky Patterson of Birmingham, Ala., who legally adopted him in the summer on 1985.

"Those letters the first few months were tough on Peter," Tom Patterson said. "We did a lot of talking on the phone at 3 o'clock in the morning."

Said Charles Camp of Dothan, Ala., who took Berndt in as a member of his Boys Club: "It's tough to walk away from your family and know you can never see them again."

In time, Friedhelm's rhetoric mellowed, and Berndt got on with his new life.

"He supports me now," Berndt said. "But he does not understood. He will never understand. How could he?"

Even Berndt could not understand many of the adjustments.

When he decided to enroll at Alabama, Gambril sent him to the admissions office to take a battery of tests. Even with the language barrier, he scored a 50.8 on a test in which the NCAA requires a 45. But because he had ceased to exist in East Germany, Berndt had no way of getting his high school transcripts to prove he had maintained a C average. So the NCAA declared him ineligible.

Surprisingly, after an appeal, Berndt was declared eligible just in time for the 1985 NCAA championships. Despite inadequate preparation, he finished second in the 400 IM and third in the 200 IM. He seemed destined to become Alabama's seventh NCAA champion. But several things happened on the way to collegiate stardom. In '86, Berndt finished second in the 400 IM, third in the 200 IM, and fourth in the 200 backstroke. In '87, he failed to make the finals of the event in which he once had been ranked No. 1 in the world.

In swimming, the mind is as important as the body. When Berndt was an East German hero, his life was centered around one thing: swimming. Though he was an army officer, he was not required to march or train. He did his training in the pool, and everything else was handled by others. But when he came to the United States, Berndt had to confront the change from a one-dimensional life to one with a myriad of opportunities, challenges and anxieties. The change in culture, and the subsequent shift in the training regime to the radically different college shortcourse, left Berndt striving for, but never reaching, his former times.

Just after the '86 NCAAs, The Crimson White, Alabama's student newspaper, reported that Berndt had been accused of cheating in an English class. It was an embarrassing event that made national headlines. Berndt subsequently withdrew from the class without penalty, although he denied cheating.

"It was over for me right then and there, but the media kept writing about it," he said. "In any story that's written about me, there will always be that line. I can't help it. There's nothing I can do. It's not that I can scratch it off my memory, but I have to position it out of my mind. I have learned to adjust."

In the end, he succumbed to the limits of a college sports structure ill-equipped to deal with a defector. Under normal circumstances, a college athlete has five years in which to use four years of eligibility. But long ago, in an attempt to keep college sports a venue of the young, the NCAA enacted a rule that said every year past an athlete's 20th birthday counts as a year of eligibility. In effect, there is a clock whose alarm sounds at age 24. Berndt was 21 when he began swimming for Alabama in 1985, so all concerned knew he would have only three years of eligibility, unless the NCAA rule could be circumvented. It wasn't, and Berndt was not allowed to compete in the 1987-88 season, which would have been his fourth.

"Of course, there's one exception to that," Gambril noted. "Military service. Well, Peter was in the military, just not the American military. My contention is that it's unconstitutional to discriminate in that way. I always thought that was one for the ACLU to tackle."

But Berndt decided to tackle more immediate obstacles.

Peter Berndt climbed the starting blocks, flung his arms back and forth, pulled his goggles over his eyes and crouched for the start of the 400 IM at the 1986 U.S. Open in Orlando, Fla. He looked toward the man at his left, an East German, and shouted "Good luck" in German. But the man ignored him

"At that point, I tried to put it out of my mind," Berndt said.

It was the first time Berndt had competed against his former countrymen, the first time he had tried but failed to communicate with his past. The man next to him used to be his best friend. But now he would not, could not, acknowledge Berndt's greeting.

"It was a very bizarre situation," he said. "They would look at me and I would look at them. But we knew we could not speak. Even in the pool they could not speak to me."

All sorts of things churned in Berndt's mind as he waiting for the starting horn. But then it sounded and he went to work, winning the most important race of his life.

"It still hurts," he said. "I know that I will never be able to see my old friends or my family again. That is the most difficult thing."

Beyond the obstacles, there is the dream.

In his first days in the States, Berndt began talking about swimming for the U.S. team and winning a goal medal. But only citizens can swim in the Olympics, and it would take five years for Berndt to be naturalized.

So early in '86, Berndt, with the help of Gambril and the Pattersons, mounted a campaign in Congress for early citizenship. Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) and Rep. Ben Erdrich (D-Ala.) introduced bills on his behalf, and Berndt even flew to Washington to lobby for his case.

"It was a great civics lesson for me, but especially for Peter," Tom Patterson said. "Peter really appreciated the fact that we could walk into the halls of Congress where there were no guards and very few restrictions."

Late in the '86 session, the Senate passed Denton's bill. But the House legislation got hung up in committee for more than two years until Berndt called it of last month when he learned it would do no good. He discovered an IOC rule that would have forced him to ask the East Germans for permission to swim for the United States, even with U.S. citizenship.

Under IOC rules, any athlete who has defected and seeks to swim for another country must have been a citizen of that country for at least three years. If the athlete cannot meet that criteria, he can request a waiver from his home country. But when the IOC requested such a waiver from the East Germans, they said no.

Then Berndt moved to West Germany to attempt to compete for that country, since the IOC considers the divided nations as one and he would not have to fulfill the three-year citizenship requirement. This puts the burden on the East Germans to object to his presence on the West German roster, rather than approve it. Although the West German route was one Berndt wanted to avoid at all costs, it was the only path left open to his dream.

Those close to Berndt say the fact that he missed the Los Angeles Olympics because of the boycott still eats at him.

"What you have to understand," said Becky Patterson, "is that this is something Peter has been training for, dreaming of, for 18 years of his life. We think it's really disappointing that he can't have the chance to do it for the U.S. team, but it would be a real tragedy if he didn't make it at all."

In some ways, Berndt is better off. Although members of the U.S. team receive little or no monetary support, the West Germans are given a generous stipend and other comforts while they train. He can train without being a financial drain on the Pattersons.

"It is a good comfortable amount I receive," Berndt said.

Berndt said that after the Olympics, he plans to return to Alabama to finish his degree in business. But he knows the endorsement possibilities would be greater for him in West Germany, should he do well in Seoul. So his future remains murky.

In the present, though, Berndt has tunnel vision. He is concentrating on improving his times and healing injuries sustained to his knee and shoulder playing volleyball on the beach.

"It has been hard to keep up my level of motivation," Berndt said. "In swimming, you have to have total concentration all the time, or you slip."

The experts wonder whether Berndt's best times are behind him. He must approach his former world record in order to be a factor in the Olympics.

"I think Peter has that in him," Schubert said.

Regardless of the kind of numbers Berndt has left, Schubert said he has been amazed at his pupil's tenacity.

"He has really surprised me," Schubert said. "Look at all the disappointments he's had since he defected, but he's still in good shape. He has shown amazing concentration and self-discipline. He has developed the mind set that he's going to forget about all these other things and concentrate on doing it for himself, and that's the way it should be."

But therein lies the irony.

If he were still over there, on the other side, Berndt would be training for the Olympics with security instead of hope. His status as a national hero maintained, if not enhanced, by the prospects of future glory for the fatherland. His commission upgraded to captain or major, perhaps. His family, friends and culture close enough to touch. Trapped behind the Iron Curtain, yes, but free to pursue his dream.

If that wall could talk...

"I thought about a lot of things over there," Berndt said of his recent visit. "But I cannot think about what might have been. It does no good, because I made my choice and I have a new life. I cannot look back."

Copyright 1988 by Keith Dunnavant

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