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  • Jacob Sweetman: Of Pechstein and Haag, a winter’s tale


Jacob Sweetman: Of Pechstein and Haag, a winter’s tale

As the world's eyes focus onto the Winter Olympics, two of Berlin's most famous women will be appearing more and more. The Sportsdesk salutes them both whilst sitting, weaselly, on the fence.

On Friday, the five-time Olympic gold medal winning speed skater Claudia Pechstein will be going through all of the tricks in the inane buzzword-and-platitude heavy big book of sportsmen’s pre-race patter. She will be visualising the end of the track, she will try to block out the white noise of the outside world, she will train her focus. She will think about the weight around her neck of her potential 10th and 11th Olympic medals and not the moral one that has been lumped uncomfortably onto her shoulders.

At the same time, at Potsdamer Platz, Romy Haag will be belting into the heavens her part on the dreadful Europop mess that is the otherwise worthy LGBT protest song “Love Is Not For Propaganda”. Berlin will be talking about the Winter Olympics in one way or another on Friday.

Claudia Pechstein will tell you that, although she is equally as outraged by the seeming wave of homophobia crashing over the host nation of the Winter Olympics as anyone else, she is an athlete first and foremost. It is all she has worked for her entire life, it is all she knows. Haag, meanwhile, will tell you that it is her duty to speak up for others like her who have yet to be granted their voices, especially there where the world’s eyes are to be fixed: on Putin’s Russia.

Haag and Pechstein are two of Berlin’s most identifiable women. Strong, driven, glamorous and enormously successful, they represent the city in as much as anyone can. Berlin as a glitter drenched and high-kicking, gloriously drunken, party balanced by its defiance to bend to the will of others and its refusal to accept that the bar is closing and it is time to go home. They remain in the hangovers of East and West, of cabaret and the Ku’damm, and the belligerent sporting success masterminded at Hohenschönhausen’s Sportforum. The policewoman who fought against doping allegations and the transsexual singer whose club was used by a wealth of stars in the 1970s for a whole different world of artificially fuelled excesses.

You could cut glass with Romy Haag’s cheekbones, and Claudia Pechstein’s eyes are a blue of the sharpest ice.

And I am finding it hard to say that either of these strong women is right, or wrong, in regards their standpoints towards the Olympic Games in Sotchi, towards an obscenely overblown, and grotesquely expensive two week blow-out that resembles nothing so much as a king-hell version of MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen: a self-aggrandising and toe curling lash up where the host is a spoilt arse and the guests are only there to bask in his or hers’ dubious glory in the hope that some drops of glamour might leak from the top table into their rapidly emptying glasses.

Sport is inherently political in itself. It works at its best as a metaphor, and it thrives through the fact that the little guy can achieve as much as the big one. We live vicariously through these moments, through the unlikely triumphs, but this isn’t to forget that sport has also always been hijacked for precisely the same reasons. Those same big guys want to show the world they care, and it is always they who bang on about how sport and politics shouldn’t mix.

So does that lead to the conclusion that the 2014 Winter Olympics should be boycotted, or not? Would a young and terrified gay man in Russia be strengthened by seeing a protest (the mind springs immediately to Tommy Smith on the podium in 1968) and knowing that he has winners behind him, or would he be gratified by the knowledge that they chose not to endorse the regime that detested him so by refusing to even travel and give Putin’s Russia the oxygen of publicity?

It’s a good question, and not one that will be solved by the humble Sportsdesk. But I do feel awkward about the imposition of my moral standards onto sportsmen and women, and therefore won’t join in a stampede to condemn them for appearing in a Games that they have spent most of their lives gearing up towards. I will straddle the fence and wallow in the feeblest of compromises by watching the games but ignoring the hoop-la; enjoying the sport but shunning the sponsors and the official broadcasts.

Haag and Pechstein, Pechstein and Haag: I haven’t got the balls of either of them.