Pechstein’s seventh Olympics not the fairytale story it first seems
45-year-old speedskater maintains her innocence despite 2009 doping conviction
German speedskater Claudia Pechstein. Photograph: Maddie Meyer/Getty
Claudia Pechstein needs a second to remember her first Olympics, but you’re willing to give her a break - it has been 26 years, after all. Back then, Pechstein was just a kid, a 19-year-old competing as a speedskater for a unified Germany after growing up on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. At those 1992 Olympics, Germany’s first after reunification, Pechstein shared a room with Christa Luding-Rothenburger, the de facto team mom. Luding-Rothenburger was 32. Pechstein thought that was ancient.
What does that make Pechstein now? On Friday, when she will contend for a medal in the 5,000 meters, she’ll be just six days shy of her 46th birthday. She has won five Olympic gold medals, two silvers and two bronzes. She’s redefining what an Olympian should look like.
This is Pechstein’s seventh Olympics. A rare active athlete who can claim to have represented East Germany internationally, she’s at least 20 years older than more than half of her competitors in the 5,000. Nine of the 17 athletes entered in the race weren’t born when she won her first Olympic medal, a bronze at those 1992 Games in Albertville, France.
Call her a rare remnant of the East German sports machine. Or call her what Pechstein calls herself. “I’m Grandma!” said the woman whose longevity and resume command respect, and who might, under normal circumstances, be a sentimental favorite in these games. But the problem is that Grandma is a convicted doper, though like nearly every convicted doper she denies ever using performance-enhancing drugs. You want to like her. But it’s complicated - just like everything seems to be in Olympic sports these days.
In 2009, Pechstein was barred from competing for two years because her blood showed an abnormal level of immature red blood cells. Levels like that can be an indicator that she either used the endurance-booster EPO or a banned blood transfusion to gain an edge. She was the first athlete to receive a suspension based not on a positive drug test, but on irregularities in her blood profile.
Pechstein fought the ban, eventually contending that she inherited a congenital blood disorder from her father. But she also challenged the ban because she believed the arbitration process was unfair. Olympic federations require athletes like Pechstein to sign arbitration clauses that force them to take their cases to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an international sports court. In doing this, the athletes waive their rights to bring their case to courts in their home countries, and Pechstein thought stripping her of that right was unjustified.
Pechstein’s competitive exile ended in 2011, but her battle to overturn the ban and upend the system of arbitration in international sports is still going on seven years later. Pechstein, who is a federal police officer in Germany, just won’t quit.
In 2016, she lost her case in Germany’s highest civil court, which rejected her request for $5 million in compensation from the International Skating Union. Now she’s taking the case to yet another court. This time, it’s Germany’s federal constitutional court, and it’s worth our attention that the court has agreed to hear her complaint. “I’ve never used doping,” Pechstein said Saturday after finishing ninth in the 3,000 meters. “I will fight for my own rights.” When asked why she has pushed on with her case for so long, and exactly how she has stayed atop the sport for so many years, Pechstein smiled and pointed to the man standing beside her: her boyfriend and mental coach, Matthias Grosse.
Sometime in 2009, when Pechstein’s doping case was in the news in Germany and some of the German fans who once loved her and voted for her as the country’s sportswoman of the year were now turning on her, Grosse sent her an email. “You are at the bottom of your life,” the message read. “If you need help, you can call me. I might not be able to help much, but I’ll try.” Pechstein emailed him back. Shortly after, Grosse became part of her team, helping her with her legal battle, but also with her mental struggle. He was her biggest cheerleader when she felt crushed that her reputation had crumpled. The next year, in 2010 - the year she missed the Vancouver Olympics because of her ban - they became a couple.
After the 3,000 meters ended Saturday, Pechstein leaned over a partition to kiss Grosse. They brought their foreheads together and whispered to each other before hugging. On the lanyard that held his Olympic coaching credential was a round plastic button with their photo on it. They are a cute pair.
“For me it was hard to come back after the ban, especially at the same level I went out, but I love skating and he helped me come back,” Pechstein said, grabbing Grosse’s arm. A year ago, in the 5,000 meters, Pechstein became the oldest woman in speedskating to win a World Cup race, and the oldest woman in the sport to make it to the podium at a world championship. Athletes older than her have won Olympic medals but it will still be a remarkable achievement if she can add to her collection here.
“She’s a very special athlete, not normal,” said teammate Roxanne Dufter, 25.
“I cannot imagine that it’s possible to stay motivated for so many Olympics.” Dufter said that Pechstein is friendly with younger teammates and often gives them skating tips. When they’re on the ice together, no one notices an age difference, Dufter said. “It’s like we’re the same,” Dufter said. “When we see the style of clothing off the ice, maybe you can see there’s 20 years between us.” Pechstein says she can’t explain why she still goes fast. I would say speedskating is in her blood, but that probably wouldn’t be the most appropriate way to phrase it.
And despite what cynics might think, Pechstein says her endurance is simple: The training regimen she learned in East Germany was strict and serious and it gave her a strong foundation. Now that she’s older, she requires more rest, but, she added, there’s no special secret to her success. Especially not a secret diet.
“I’ll eat everything: chocolate, ice cream,” she said. “And why not? I’m just human.” Pechstein said her goal is to be happy, which she seemed to be as she stood arm-in-arm with Grosse after her race. But her doping case still looms over all that she has done, and hopes to achieve, and finally winning it, she said, is motivation enough for her to keep going.
“Maybe I’ll even try for another Olympics,” she said. “An eighth one! Why not?” – New York Times