German rower denies far-right ties

Tue, Aug 7, 2012, 01:00

The Olympics would not be the Olympics if the personal lives of the athletes did not play a major role in the event. But the love life of one young athlete has become the focus of a nation - not as an inspirational story but as a cautionary tale.

The athlete, Nadja Drygalla, a rower on the German Olympic team, volunteered to leave the Olympic Village last week after a discussion with officials about her boyfriend's extreme right-wing political activities.

But instead of heading off a potential controversy through her quiet departure, Drygalla has become the focus of a national debate, her romantic choices dissected in leading newspapers and on television broadcasts.

Drygalla's boyfriend, Michael Fischer, himself a former competitive rower, was a candidate last year in a regional election for the far-right National Democratic Party and is part of an extremist group known as the Rostock National Socialists.

"I have no connection to his circle of friends and this scene, and I reject it completely," Drygalla (23) said in an interview with dpa, a German news agency.

She said that his politics were a burden on their relationship and that she had considered breaking up with him over it. She quit her career as a police officer last year after her superiors learned about the relationship.

Her premature departure from the Olympic Games came only after she had competed, but the attention has raised questions about her future participation in the national team. She left the Olympics, she said, because some of her teammates "were still competing and they should be able to concentrate on that."

Both Drygalla and Fischer say he quit the National Democrats in May. But questions remain as to how German Olympic officials could have been caught unaware on such a sensitive issue, especially after she left the police force.

So while the rest of the world talks about the sprinter Usain Bolt and the swimmer Michael Phelps, Germany debates the past and future of a single rower on the women's eight that did not even make the finals. The case is making "big waves," as German minister for the interior Hans-Peter Friedrich put it yesterday.

A parliamentary committee will discuss the controversy in a hearing next month, according to Dagmar Freitag, the sports committee chairwoman.

The daily Tagesspiegel newspaper said Drygalla must have been "either unbelievably naïve or dumb or herself infected with the brown demons," referring to the Nazi ideology. Even as many questioned the athlete's choice of a boyfriend, a backlash quickly formed over Drygalla's presumed guilt by association and the intensity of the news media scrutiny of her.

Thomas de Maiziere, Germany's minister for defence, said that while he welcomed Drygalla's statement distancing herself from right-wing views, he believed some people had "crossed the line" in screening the friends and associates of athletes.

Drygalla appeared shaken and vulnerable, fighting back tears as she tried to explain herself in the interview.

"I'm not doing well," she said, "the last few days have been pretty stressful and pretty surprising."

One young athlete's personal choices would seem to have little to do with the highest levels of politics, but when that young woman is representing Germany at the Olympics, and her choices involve extreme right-wing politics, it becomes difficult to separate the two.

Drygalla hails from Rostock on the Baltic Sea, once part of East Germany and a centre of right-wing political activity. In 1992 the city was rocked by days of rioting against foreigners.

Residents by the hundreds cheered as a building housing Vietnamese guest workers was firebombed.

Recriminations over neo-Nazi activities, long a feature of German public discourse, have grown particularly acute this summer. There have been a series of resignations by senior law enforcement officials over the failure to stop a decade-long crime spree by the extreme-right National Socialist Underground, whose members have killed 10 people and robbed numerous banks.

Investigators never caught up with the group. Instead, the two leading members died at their own hands, and a third gave herself up last year in the wake of a failed bank robbery.

Embarrassing investigative failures during the group's active years have been compounded by reports of bungled efforts to cover up miscues through shredded and misplaced documents.

The head of the federal criminal police will retire at the end of the year as a result. The chief of Germany's domestic intelligence agency stepped down last month.

"There's greater vigilance since then," said Hajo Funke, an expert on rightist extremism at the Free University in Berlin. That also contributed to the intense glare of the spotlight that was riveted on Drygalla, he said.

Mr Funke questioned whether Drygalla's boyfriend had really left his right-wing past behind.

"He is a committed neo-Nazi and not just a right-wing extremist," Mr Funke said, referring to Fischer, who was well known to people tracking the extreme right in Rostock.

"There's no evidence that he could have given up his ideology from one day to the next."

Indeed, Fischer wrote an article for a website associated with the National Democrats in June, after he said he had quit the party. Fischer campaigned in September 2011 as a candidate for the state Legislature in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.

He travelled to London for the Olympics, where he wrote on Facebook about sitting next to "Pakis" on the subway.

In an interview with dpa, Fischer said was sorry and that he had not done Drygalla "any favours" with his political activities, but that he had indeed left the party as she said.

He did not deny his association with the Rostock National Socialists, saying that it was "a loose group" without a leadership structure.

Dierk Borstel, an expert on right-wing extremism at the University of Bielefeld who worked for 12 years with people trying to leave such groups, cautioned against "generalisations that everyone in contact with a neo-Nazi is also a neo-Nazi. That's wrong."

"You definitely see young people who were Nazis who had friends who weren't Nazis," Mr Borstel said, "and that had a positive effect on getting people out of the scene."

Drygalla, who hopes to continue with the rowing team, found her Facebook postings dissected and her every utterance parsed, and was even accused of attending a far-right demonstration in 2009 based only on a blurry photograph of a woman with similarly bright blonde hair.

"That is not me, and I can say it very clearly," she said.

"I find it unfair and unjustified. I would be content if only the false things could be set straight."

New York Times