She made Socialism sexy, won Olympic Golds for skating, posed for Playboy, but is now most recognisable as a judge with Louie Spence on Dancing on Ice.
Four years before Katarina Witt was born, the Berlin Wall cut her country in half. Even the area she was born in, Staaken, was sliced in two. Katarina grew up in the Eastern part, under Russian control; a control ruthlessly enforced by the infamous secret police, the Stasi. Like the fascist regime it overthrew, the communist regime placed great emphasis on proving its superiority, not just on the field of combat, but in the arena of sport.
Katarina was just five years old when she first took to the ice, and by seven, she’d won her first competition. Katarina’s parents were poor, even by East German standards, and couldn't afford to train her. But one of the world’s most successful figure skating coaches, Jutta Muller, recognised her athletic potential, and started coaching the nine year old. She was credited with not just making Katarina technically devastating, but with developing her sense of showmanship. On top of this, Katarina attended a special school for athletes. There, she was weighed twice a day and starved if the results weren’t satisfactory.
Nine gruelling years later, Katarina won her first European Championship title.
In the winter of 1984, in one of the many classic East versus West confrontations of the Cold War, Katarina narrowly took the Olympic Gold off the reigning American champion, Rosalynn Sumners. (Katarina won by one tenth of one judge’s score card). She also won her first World Championship title, and that year, readers of the biggest selling news paper in East Germany voted the eighteen year old their country’s athlete of the year.
As her confidence grew, so did the revealing and risky nature of her costumes. Her rigorous routines and technically astute performances seemed to contrast with her daring outfits and flirting with the audience. She quickly attracted attention outside of the world of ice skating. She began a relationship with a rock drummer, but The Stasi tried to split the couple up.
In 1985, she again held onto the World Championship, but lost it the next year, to another American, Debi Thomas. Because Katarina came second, the East German sports federation wrote to her reminding her of the necessity of first place. It was around this time that the Stasi asked her to attend meetings with them. Their job was to make sure she didn't defect.
1987 saw her skate the strongest long programme of her career, landing five triple jumps including a triple loop jump to regain the World Championship title. The following year, she not only recaptured the title, she won her sixth consecutive European Championship, a feat not achieved for over half a century. Along with only one other skater, she has the record for the most consecutive European titles.
The 1988 Calgary Olympics became known as the ‘Battle of the Carmens’ after Katarina, and her old rival, Debi Thomas independently chose the same music from the opera Carmen. But both performances weren't the hyped-for spectacles with ‘Time’ magazine describing them as ‘underwhelming’. Despite this, it was Debi who came off worse in the clash when costly mistakes meant she only picked up bronze. A triumphant Katarina picked up her second Olympic Gold.
Katarina was then one of the most successful skaters of all time and at the height of her fame, she cashed in and turned professional. It was unusual for a Soviet state to allow their people to market their skills - it was even rarer for them to allow them to tour around the country of their great enemy, the United States. But this was what Katarina did for the next three years. Alongside another gold medallist, she sold out New York’s Madison Square Garden for the first time in a decade.
Declassified Stasi files reveal how keen they were to stop their star skater defecting and that the tour, along with other gifts, was part of that effort. But it’s also claimed that she had had to agree to give a substantial portion of her earnings to the East German government.
In October 1989, the Stasi filed their last report on her. She was in Spain, filming a celluloid version of ‘Carmen’. The next month, she returned to Germany to find herself, along with her country, free.
But with her home in East Germany consigned to history, and increasingly unpopular with many of her countryman who accused her of complicity with the fallen regime, she began to make New York her new home.
In 1990, Katarina received an Emmy Award for her starring role in ‘Carmen on Ice’. In around 1992, she started a relationship with actor Richard Dean Anderson (of ‘Stargate’ and ‘MacGyver’ fame). It ended that year. Some claim he finished it after seeing reports of her connection with the Stasi. Katarina denied this.
Her 1993 autobiography revealed she’d seen the Stasi file on her. She detailed how the Stasi not only recorded when they believed she was having sex, but for how long. In 1994, Katarina returned to competitive skating, making her debut as a skater for her now re-united country at the Winter Olympics. At that time, Sarajevo was ripping itself apart in a bitter war and in a tribute to the city where she first won gold, she dedicated her performance to it, and enchanted the audience: But unfortunately, not the judges, who placed her seventh.
Various film and TV roles followed but out of those, few will forget her December 1998 nude appearance in Playboy magazine. The issue is only the second in the magazine’s history to sell out, (the first was the inaugural 1953 edition featuring Marilyn Monroe.)
Much was made of the release of her Stasis files into the public domain in 2002. Many tried to paint her as a willing accomplice to one of the worst of the Soviet surveillance states. Critics point to the fact that she received a car ten years ahead of the public waiting list. Others observe that the vehicle she received was not some salubrious sports car, but a Soviet built Lada.
Katarina Witt has a medal tally that makes her one of the most successful figure skaters ever. If she had resisted the Stasi in any way, it’s unlikely the world would have ever heard of her.
She finally came to the attention of the UK public when on her 46th birthday, it was announced that she would be one of the new judges on the ITV series, ‘Dancing On Ice’.