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  • Jacob Sweetman: At their Witts end


Jacob Sweetman: At their Witts end

Berlin's darkened and smoky corners are most alive when the city's sports fans mutter and grumble their way expertly through the days and nights. Even if the sport is figure skating. The Sportsdesk has the scandal.

Image for Jacob Sweetman: At their Witts end
Photo courtesy of the Bundesarchiv

“She’s only 15… amazing.” The tip of the guy’s tongue juts out – just the tip – and he crushes away his filter into the ashtray. And it is just the filter by now. As he stared at the TV, the cigarette he held had smouldered away adding another little hint of yellow to the stinking walls in my favourite kebab shop. He is old, but probably not as old as he looks, and we know each other enough to nod at. I don’t know where he was born. It could have been Berlin, could’ve been anywhere, we’ve only ever grunted at each other about sport, but this time I don’t even do that because I have got no idea what he’s talking about and I’m worried that he’s just admiring a young girl’s knickers.

His mate joins in. “Only 15, unbelievable…” They are watching TV, the Sochi Olympics, and it is the turn of Yulia Lipnitskaya and I pop open my Schultheiss and roll a fag as I focus on the screen, but listen to their conversation as I always do here. It is not really a conversation though, more two spikily accented monologues intertwining and joining up like twisted branches on a rose bush.

But I had them all wrong – shit, I always do in this place. They continue their stilted chat, never looking at each other, just puffing and muttering away about the ice dance competition. We are watching the figure skating final and it is reaching a climax. Katarina Witt (who, according to the GDR Sporting Lexicon, was once described in an American paper as the beautiful face of Socialism) is on the box to tell us what is going on, but I don’t need her. I’ve got my old boys. They discern a triple lutz from a triple loop without batting an eyelid. They celebrate successes as they feel the pain of the inevitable failure of the 15-year-old. She crashes to the ice as that razor thin blade wobbled underneath an impossible looking landing.

They both sigh as she hauls herself to her feet to complete her routine, top lip wobbling. That fixed grin a little tenser as she holds back the floods of tears welling up inside her. I was just there to have a beer and smoke a fag out of the house, I didn’t come in for an emotional rollercoaster, but my guides helped me along with their monologues. They are sport fans, they sit there day after day muttering about football and about handball. They smoke their way through the minutiae of Eurosport’s broadcasts. I’ve written about these old boys before, but still they surprise me. Nothing is alien to them, nothing too obscure to be unworthy of their considered attention and analysis.

I love this place because this, this conversation, these yellowed walls, for me, is Berlin. There isn’t a mismatching piece of furniture to be seen, and they are as ugly as I am. It is a gloriously grotty antidote to the hip tidal wave smashing over this part of the city.

Next up is the Italian, Carolina Kostner, whose teeth could host the next Winter Olympics on their own. Nobody is impressed by the choice of music, which contrasts with the South Korean veteran, Kim Yuna, who flits around flawlessly to Astor Piazzola with grace and power. They liked that and are convinced that she’s got it in the bag. Kati agrees as they discuss her turn in Calgary when she won the gold in the “battle of the Carmens” in 1988.

Then the final Russian, Adelina Sotnikova tears the place up. She is technically superb, they agree, but not a patch on Yuna. The camera pans across the packed stadium around the ice, filled with excitable home fans. The kebab shop falls silent as her numbers are called up. Kati is livid, but she couldn’t dance greater opprobrium than these two who know exactly what has happened here. They are certain Sotnikova shouldn’t have ever won. It is a scandal, an outrage. One hits the table whilst the other lights another cheap fag with the butt of the last. Smoke billows out of his nose. The fix is in.

The International Skating Union were forced to release a statement saying that nobody had ever complained about the result officially and that they were “…confident in the high quality and integrity of the ISU judging system…” but no one bought it. Especially not there where the legendary Kati Witt’s voice was drowned out by the husky, throaty rage of the common Berliner sport fan who knows his stuff.

I slunk away, knowing that I had just had the best that the Winter Olympics had to offer. I love this city.