Growing up in 1980s America, we were inundated with images of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Everyday, news reports beamed stories of soldiers patrolling the Berlin Wall and Eastern European politicians spouting rhetoric against the United States. Though life appeared grey and bleak in the Communist East, instinctually, we knew that people abroad must have received similar types of skewed messages about daily life in America. Of course, things are never entirely what they seem.
Katarina Witt, once dubbed "the most beautiful face of socialism," is one of the most legendary skaters in the history of figure skating. This two-time, gold medal-winning Olympian broke records and stereotypes.
Though we were interested in the relationship between athletics and politics in the Cold War, ultimately, we found an intimate story about Katarina's life in East Germany and her role as an international 'diplomat' for the German Socialist state. Witt may have been perceived as a functionary of a "political machine," but in reality, she was an athlete chasing personal dreams on an international stage. No story is more human. In a broad sense, politics may divide us, but up close, each of us shares common ground in which we all seek fulfillment of our hopes and dreams. It is from this place of commonality that we chose to explore East Germany and the rising career of Katarina Witt.
As documentarians, we believe that the key to crafting powerful projects is to always remember that every story has two sides. Our past films, Project Kashmir and A Small Act, have worked to break clichés by stepping away from our own preconceived notions and allowing our subjects to reveal their personal perspectives. Similarly, as we began exploring the life of Katarina Witt for ESPN, we were not surprised to learn that so many of our assumptions about her career and her country were wrong.
Once we began conducting research, we were surprised to find out that many East Germans agreed to speak with us simply because we were Americans. Former GDR athletes and high-level politicians spoke candidly about their roles in East Germany in a way that they had never done before. Among the people with whom we secured interviews were Egon Krenz, the last leader of East Germany, and Ingo Steuer, an ice skater from Katarina's rink. In the past, Krenz refused all German press requests, so this was an incredibly important interview for us; and for the first time, Steuer opened up about his role in spying on Katarina Witt for the Stasi secret police in East Germany.
We were also fortunate enough to be granted extensive access to the Stasi Archives and to 181 pages of Katarina's actual Stasi file. We handled authentic Stasi recording devices, spy cameras and shredded files. There is no denying that seeing the depth and breadth of how the Stasi spied on its own citizens was an emotional and disturbing experience. After researching East Germany and the methods through which the country collected information, we can't help but draw comparisons to the recent NSA, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning stories here at home. Justifying surveillance is always a slippery slope.
Historically, sports have been used to show political might. For instance, at the height of the Cold War, both the USA and the USSR boycotted the Olympics for political reasons. In fact, Senator Lindsey Graham called for a boycott of the 2014 Olympics over the Edward Snowden controversy.
The Diplomat, though primarily about Katarina Witt, is coming out at a very pivotal time in American history. East Germany and its secret police are gone, but many of the same issues still remain. We as a society must learn from the Cold War's history and speak boldly about what is happening behind the scenes in our own nation.
The Diplomat premieres on August 6 at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN as part of ESPN Films' and espnW's Nine for IX series.
This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and ESPN, in conjuncture with the latter's 'Nine for IX' film series, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Title IX was a landmark legislative victory for justice that prohibited discrimination by gender in schools and sports. To see all the posts in the series, click here. To learn more about 'Nine for IX,' click here.