Escape via Elevator Shaft: East Germany’s ‘Traitor Athletes’ Tell their Stories
More than 600 athletes fled the German Democratic Republic. They were branded “traitor athletes” and many were pursued by East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi. Cyclist Jürgen Kissner managed to escape. A new exhibit in Berlin tells their stories.
“Keep peddling, pick up the pace!” the wiry man with the closely-cropped gray hair barks. “Always only pass above,” he adds. Stopwatch in hand, Jürgen Kissner stands trackside in the Cologne velodrome, becoming more impassioned with every lap he watches his cycling students make. “Push yourself,” he yells at the cyclists frantically peddling past. “Lift your butt off the seat, kid!”
Kissner, 68, teaches at the German Sport University Cologne, where he works as a trainer two times per week, earning €32.40 ($46.64) per hour. The certified athletic instructor introduced cycling into the school’s curriculum some 40 years ago. His students call him by his first name, “Jürgen,” but only a small number of them know his story.
Kissner was once a two-time cycling champion in East Germany. He later was a champion in West Germany, and a silver medalist with West Germany’s four-man relay team at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He is among the elite East German athletes who escaped to the West. Upon leaving the GDR, they went from being celebrated as exemplary citizens to being branded as traitors.