Witt's life, career examined in ESPN documentary

The Diplomat also delves into East German athletic program

Katarina Witt was moved by the stories of some of the other people who appear in <i>The Diplomat</i>, including Ingo Steuer and Jutta M&#252;ller.
Katarina Witt was moved by the stories of some of the other people who appear in The Diplomat, including Ingo Steuer and Jutta Müller. (courtesy of ESPN)


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By Lois Elfman, special to
(08/06/2013) - Each time an Olympic season approaches, Katarina Witt receives requests from filmmakers around the world wanting to make a documentary about her life. The two-time Olympic gold medalist (1984 and '88) and four-time world champion (1984, '85, '87, '88) usually declines, feeling enough has been told about her life and athletic career in the former East Germany.

But an offer from U.S. documentary filmmakers Jennifer Arnold and Senain Kheshgi caught her attention. The two directors flew to Germany to meet with Witt and discuss their concept. Their film, The Diplomat, premieres Tuesday night as part of ESPN's "Nine for IX" series -- nine films highlighting women in sports in honor of Title IX, the federal law that protects people from sex discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.

"I really liked that they were two directors who were not mainly in sports or did not mainly know about East Germany, so they were looking at my life and my biography with fresh eyes," Witt said.

Arnold and Kheshgi not only did extensive research, but each approached Witt's story from different angles. Kheshgi focused on East Germany and the politics of the socialist state and how it used sport as a symbol for the country during the Cold War. Arnold examined Witt's personal story, how much she loved performing and how she fought to have a professional skating career after her competitive days ended, something that was previously unheard of for East German athletes.

"When I came to Chemnitz (formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt, where Witt trained), we sat down for a long interview," Witt said. "I was prepared to be open and honest. I think that was the only way."

When Witt saw the finished product for the first time, at the Tribeca Film Festival, she was moved by the other people who appear in the film, particularly Ingo Steuer, world pairs champion and Olympic bronze medalist who is now coach of four-time world pairs champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. He spoke about how as a teenager Stasi (secret police) officials forced him to spy on Witt.

"It was good for him to do that. He set the record straight," Witt said. "Forgive the guy -- he was young. If somebody could be upset, it was me, and I'm the one who has forgiven him from the beginning."

"There was a reason and a methodology that the Stasi were known for and they used on their people to intimidate them," Kheshgi said. "He was at that age (17 when the spying began), in a very vulnerable position."

The film also sheds light on Witt's coach, Jutta Müller, who during Witt's competitive career was often cast as a cold, domineering taskmaster who was an instrument of the East German regime.

"I know she was seen as a very strong, very tough woman," Witt said. "Hardly anybody got to see the other side, which we got to see -- the side I always respected because as hard as she was to her students, that's how hard she was on herself. She didn't ask for anything more than she would deliver.

"To see her after all these years being so vulnerable as well as showing how much pressure she was under," she added, "I think it makes that piece special and shows her in a different light. She is a woman with all the aspects we have: being sensitive, being emotional and being warm hearted and not just being a tough coach."

A central story in the film is how Müller's daughter, two-time world champion Gabriele Seyfert, was denied the chance of a professional skating career because East German athletes were not allowed to skate professionally. Because she'd seen the pain this caused Seyfert, Müller fought hard for Witt to be allowed to continue skating after her competitive career.

"We wanted to portray Frau Müller from Katarina's point of view. It was clear from the moment we initially spoke with Katarina that she has so much love for this woman," Arnold said. "[The story about Gaby] was something that felt dramatic and universal."

Given the 50-minute allotted time, there were many things that didn't make it into the film, including Witt's 1994 return to the Olympic Winter Games representing a reunified Germany, as well as details about her life over the past two decades.

Witt, 47, ended her professional skating career five years ago and remains busy with a variety of projects. She has hosted Germany's version of The Biggest Loser, produced and hosted two seasons of Germany's Skating with the Stars, and served as a judge on the British TV show Dancing on Ice. For two years, she was chair of the Munich bid committee for the 2018 Winter Olympics (which were awarded to Pyeongchang, South Korea). Last year, she played herself in a movie, Der Feind in meinem Leben (The Enemy in My Life), a fictional, scripted film that reflected Witt's personal experience with a stalker.

Witt expects to be in Sochi as a commentator for German television. She said she is always excited to attend an Olympics, but she doesn't experience flashback anxiety.

"Certain things you can deliver when you're young," Witt said. "The pressure in front of an audience where the whole world is watching -- you only survive that when you're young and you're innocent, in a way.

"I feel the older you get, the more pride you have in your past and what you've done. You stand there and think, 'OK kids, now you've got to go through this.'"