the race against the stasi. herbie sykes. aurum press hardback 399pp illus. £18.99

the race against the stasi

this is an odd time in scotland. odd because on thursday 18 september, we have to pop into a little wooden booth and place a cross against whether we wish to have independence from the rest of the uk, or whether we're quite happy to remain conjoined. this has resulted in two distinct clans (an appropriate choice of word, i hope), both whom seem hell bent on either arguing their point of view at every opportunity or, in the case of the local yes vote, erecting sizeable banners with the word yes in white on a blue background. or flying the scottish saltire. sometimes both.

there is even a house opposite the newsagents in bowmore that features georgian style windows with a myriad of individual panes of glass in each of which the owner has placed a yes sticker. as if that weren't enough, the letters on their car licence plate are snp. if the vote goes the opposite way, i have a feeling i know how they're going to be spending september 19th. and yet, sitting on the table beside my armchair is my independence referendum polling card on which it quite clearly states that, having voted, i ought not to indicate in which box i placed my cross.

for a great many, that is no longer a secret.

the gist of the yes vote seems to rest on how much better off we would be, freed from the tyranny of westminster and subsequently able to determine our own future without recourse to those down south. they may well be right, but in similar fashion to asking one of the four year-olds in the care of mrs washingmachinepost whether i ought to choose sram or campagnolo, the referendum vote is one i think the majority of us are ill-equipped to make. i was always under the impression that's what politicians were paid for.

however, given the track record of the majority with the suffix m.p., even if independence becomes the flavour of the month, in truth i thik we're simply likely to swap one set of game show hosts for another. only this time, they'll have scottish accents.

when it comes to oppression of the people by the state, i'd figure that, in the uk at least, we simply don't know we're born. and if that's a contention with which you may wish to take exception, i'd heartily recommend that you read herbie sykes' latest book entitled the race against the stasi. the principal character in this all too real eastern bloc drama is a man called dieter wiedemann, a cyclist who became a hero of east germany, finishing on the podium of the peace race, the latter being the iron curtain's equivalent of the tour de france.

if i figure that scotland's referendum has created one or two oddities, then the communist east may require a different adjective altogether, and one of far greater magnitude. though wiedemann became a poster boy for the alleged superiority of socialism over the democracy practised in the west, the lengths to which the east german state went to convince not only those on this side of the wall, but their own people, were little short of bizarre.

of course, as is now a recognised part of history ever since the berlin wall came down in the late nineteen-eighties, the east germans were not only keen on using sport to promote their cause abroad, but also on keeping clandestine tabs on their own people by way of a secret police force; the stasi. if it had ended there, no doubt this would still be considered something of an oddity in itself, for if socialism was all it was cracked up to be, why would it be necessary to enforce it? surely the lucky citizens of east germany would never have had need of a wall to keep them in paradise at all?

the peace race began in 1948 as a means of managing the german populations of warsaw and prague. "Everybody followed the bike races and the biggest of all was the Peace Race. It was a two week stage race and it always started at the beginning of May." the race was rotated between the three major participating cities; berlin, warsaw and prague. "A group of sports journalists sat down and talked about how sport could help resolve the (population management) problems. The idea had been to organise a boxing tournament, but blokes hitting each other didn't really work as a symbol of peaceful co-existence."

the first winner of the race was tave schur, pretty much unknown in the west, but the east's equivalent of fausto coppi or eddy merckx. and in 1972, while merckx was winning the tour at an average speed of 36.1kph, czech rider vlastimil moravec took victory in "arguably the greatest, most emblematic Peace Race of all." riding at an average 42.6kph.

however, when it came to the olympic bike races, competitors were of necessity, from the amateur ranks. for the west, that meant riders who had day jobs, training and racing in their spare time, and dependent on contritious employers who would allow time off for events such as the olympics. ostensibly the east could have done likewise, but that would be leaving to chance any perceived supremacy of socialist athletes. therefore the east's cyclists were either provided with appropriate employment suitable to their pre-determined career paths, or as was seemingly the more favoured method, classified as students and enrolled on courses at state universities that many probably never completed.

so how and why did herbie sykes descend upon the almost unheard of dieter wiedemann as the subject of this incredibly impressive body of work? "...the bike racing culture which created great post-communism roadmen like Jan Ullrich, Eric Zabel and Tony Martin has its roots not in the reasoned, centralist unified Germany of the twenty-first century. [...] They were made, emphatically and unequivocally, in the German Democratic Republic.
"In scanning the runners and riders in the 1964 Peace Race I stumbled across a familiar looking name. I had an idea I'd seen Dieter Wiedemann elsewhere, and so it was [...] (he) had ridden the 1967 Tour de France... and had been present when Tom Simpson rode himself to death on Mont Ventoux."

the race against the stasi takes the form of, basically, three distinct parts. for those (such as yours truly) unfamiliar with the gestation period of the socialist east after the second world war, sykes prefaces that which is to come with what i can only describe as an expressly lucid account of the situation post 1945, with the splitting of berlin and the creation of the german democratic republic, something of an oxymoron, since democracy was highly conspicuous by its absence. following this brief introduction, sykes embarks on a series of dialogues with the principal characters, allowing them to relate the story in their own words.

"You ask why, now, after fifty years? (that wiedemann had agreed to tell his story)
[...] "My problem is that I'm seventy-three years old, and I still don't know my history. I know a version of my life, but I also know that there's probably another one in a filing cabinet in Berlin. So in a sense the Stasi creatd another Dieter Wiedemann, and he and I existed in parallel."

without wishing to give too much away, part one of the book concerns wiedemann's sporting life in the east, his falling in love with sylvia, whose paternal grandparents hailed from czechoslovakia and eventually settled in giessen, about 50 miles from frankfurt. " father... was twenty-four when the war ended, but he didn't go as far north as Giessen. He stopped just across the Czech/German border, in a small town in Bavaria. The place is called Mitterteich... in the American zone."

with an aunt and uncle living in dieter's home town of floha, prior to the building of the wall in 1961, sylvia had visited and almost innocuously come into contact with wiedemann. this eventually led to a long-distance, blossoming relationship, hampered not only by the wall, but the machinations and watchfulness of the stasi who were less than keen to have their citizens, especially those of international sporting prowess, leave home and not return.

wiedemann continued to prove himself a successful cyclist, selected for for the minimal cross-border races to which the east were invited. desperate to escape a claustrophobic police state in which both stasi and their informants watched and recorded every move, but more than that, wanting to be with the girl he hoped to marry, wiedemann succeeded in defecting (with his bicycle) during olympic qualifying trials in giessen.

the format of individual interview dialogue in this first part of the book works remarkably well, despite one or two misgivings as i started reading. these are interspersed with relevant typed and translated stasi reports, newspaper features and verisimilitudes of the letters written by dieter to sylvia. the second discrete part of the book concentrates on the stasi reports filed after wiedemann's defection, painstakingly researched and copied by herbie sykes while accompanying wiedemann to the stasi repository in berlin. these detail an incredibly paranoid regime, one which had recruited substantial numbers of informants to keep tabs not only on wiedemann, but others besides, one of whom turned out to be a close friend of dieter.

"...I have no idea what we'll find or who we'll find. I have an idea about what might be in there, and that one person in particular that I was very close to was informing on me. Equally I've no doubt that a lot of people who passed through my life back then were Stasi."

i cannot recommend this book highly enough. it arrived on my doormat on a friday afternoon, and i finished it on saturday evening, all 400 pages of it. the book is a monumental work of great credit to its author and principal subjects, in equal parts social and sporting history and may well be one of the finest books i have ever had the pleasure of reading. if this doesn't win sports book of the year next time round, there really is no justice in our western, democratic world.

'the race against the stasi', by herbie sykes is published on september 4.

monday 1 september 2014

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................