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1969 East Germany Japan Politics USA USSR

1969: East Germany vs. Japan’s Foreign Office

The Japanese Gymnastics Association wanted to invite East Germany to a competition with the Soviet Union and the United States. However, Japan did not have diplomatic relations with East Germany until May of 1973.

So, what would happen if an East German gymnast won the competition? Would the meet organizers still hoist the flag for a nation that Japan didn’t recognize?

Unless you lived through the Cold War, it’s hard to imagine the complicated diplomatic hoops countries had to jump through. The following article painstakingly details many of the scenarios that the Japanese meet organizers had to consider when inviting East Germans to a gymnastics competition.

The East German Flag, 1959 – 1973

Fate of Gymnastic Meet Depends on Intl Politics

The Japan Gymnastics Association has found itself entangled in the web of conflict between international politics and international sports.

The association may have to cancel its plans to invite seven internationally known women gymnasts from East Germany, the Soviet Union, and the US to an international competition to be held in Japan in late November.

Whether the plan will materialize or not will depend on the attitude of the government toward East Germany, which Japan has not recognized as a state and with which it has no diplomatic relations.

The seven female gymnasts to be invited include Erika Zuchold, who placed fourth in the individual competition in the Mexico Olympics, and Karin Janz, who placed six in the same competition, both of East Germany.

Association Vice-President Toshihiko Sasano told a press conference early this week that the government was expected to allow five East Germans, including three women gymnasts, a trainer, and a judge to enter Japan for participation in the planned competition.

But the Foreign Office is reluctant to see the national flag of East Germany hoisted and to have the country’s national anthem performed during medal awarding ceremonies.

According to Sasano, the East Germans insist on their national flag and anthem being respected during the competition.

Recognition of the East German national flag and song is virtual recognition of East Germany as a sovereign state, but Japan at the present time has no plan to recognize that country, according to the Foreign Office.

Sasano said that Japanese women gymnasts would be no match for their East German counterparts and that participants and spectators would see the East German flag raised and hear the East German anthem played many times during the competition.

If the demand was turned down the East Germans would not accept the association’s invitation and that would cause the Soviet gymnasts to boycott the planned competition in sympathy with the East Germans, Sasano said.

Since formal invitations had to be sent by September 15, he would continue negotiations with the Foreign Office, and other government organs concerned, over the problem, he said.

He indicated that in the worst case the competition would either have to be cancelled or the association would try to hold the competition without any national flags being displayed or any national anthems being played.

Morichika Ogawa, secretary-general of the association, told the Yomiuri in a telephone interview Wednesday that the matter had now reached the stage where the government would have to use very careful political judgment.

He predicted that it would take some time for the government to formally decide on the East German participation in the planned contest.

The government would have to take into consideration the reaction of other split countries, in particular North and South Korea, Ogawa said.

Should the government approve the East German demand to have their national flag displayed and their national song performed, there would be a strong reaction from South Korea, Ogawa said.

South Korea, with which Japan has normal ties, does not like North Korea, with which Japan has no diplomatic relations, to send people to Japan for any functions, sport or cultural.

If the East Germans are allowed to enter Japan and their demand concerning their national flag and song is approved, it would set a precedent for handling of similar sport and cultural events in the future.

The government does not want to upset Japan-South Korea friendly relations by putting itself in a position where it might have to grant entry permits to North Koreans because of the precedent.

Both Sasano and Ogawa said, however, that they had explained the importance of the planned gymnastic contest to the Foreign Office officials.

The contest would help enhance the gymnastic standards of Japanese girls who have not achieved satisfactory results in past international gymnastics competitions, they added.

The Yomiuri, August 29, 1969

Note: While Japan didn’t have diplomatic relations with East Germany, I should point out that the two countries did have economic relations. In 1968 and 1969, Japan sold roughly $150 million in goods to East Germany (James Ellis, Basic Data on the Economy of East Germany, 1973).

In the end, there was a competition. It just didn’t include the East German gymnasts. Larisa Petrik won the meet between Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

GymnastCountryVTUBBBFXTotal
1. PetrikURS9.409.409.509.6037.90
2. KarasevaURS9.459.509.309.4537.70
3. HashiguchiJPN9.359.459.209.4537.45
4. HanyuJPN9.409.309.309.4037.40
5. RigbyUSA9.259.359.409.3037.30
6. OdaJPN9.409.308.959.4537.10
7. MizukawaJPN9.259.308.359.2036.10
8. TanacUSA9.008.059.059.2035.30
Source: Madamoiselle Gymnast, Nov/Dec 1969

So what? Why does this matter?

When it comes to gymnastics history and political obstacles, we tend to think about the boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics — or even when the Eastern Bloc boycotted the 1963 European Championships for women’s artistic gymnastics. 

But foreign relations also played a role on a smaller scale, impacting everything from small-scale gymnastics meets like this one to the qualifications process for the 1970 World Championships.

Moreover, when we talk about the intersection of the Cold War and gymnastics, we tend to focus on the Soviet Union vs. the United States, or the Eastern Bloc vs. the United States. However, that’s too simplistic of a view. The Cold War’s impact was far-reaching in the world of sports, and this anecdote illustrates that point.


Appendix: More on East German and West German Relations in Sports in the 1950s and 1960s

Starting in 1955, West Germany threatened to break off relations with any country that recognized East Germany — even in sports.

From as early as the 1950s, the two Germanys and the Olympic movement triangulated in a relation of angst and provocation. From the foundation of the Republic, Bonn [the capital of West Germany] was convinced that any recognition of its Eastern rival would delay reunification, and set out its stall as the sole representative of the German nation (Alleinvertretung). Diplomatically, it enforced its will around the world via the Hallstein doctrine, a Foreign Office policy (from 1955 onward) that threatened to break off relations with any country (bar the USSR) that recognized the GDR. States in need of trade and development aid proved particularly open to such reasoning and keen to enter financial bargaining. At the same time, the GDR pushed representational issues to the limits—provoking Bonn’s representatives over symbols and nomenclature wherever possible—and in the Middle East in particular, it became increasingly necessary to turn a blind eye to keep the scheme intact. Nonetheless, despite its growing expense and inherent contradictions, Hallstein remained a potent weapon of defense until the Social Democratic Party (SPD) came to power with its new agenda in 1969. With the exception of Cuba (1963) and a number of Arab states (after 1965), no third-world country assumed official relations with East Berlin until that point.

It proved altogether more difficult, however, to transfer the success of Hallstein to the NGO world of international sport. Here, the visual ritual of competition supported by emblems, flags, and anthems accentuated the problem. It was one thing for West German diplomats to debate—and choose, if necessary, to ignore—the latest GDR peccadillo at a trade fair thousands of miles from home, but quite another to remain indifferent as East German colors glided up flag poles in stadiums around the world. Bonn insisted on the regulation of international paraphernalia—down to the size of badges on tracksuits—and viewed any flaunting of the rules as the thin end of the wedge. NATO lent support, particularly after the erection of the Berlin Wall, by threatening and imposing travel restrictions on GDR athletes as a deterrent against breaking the West’s strict protocols, while the Federal Republic kept its own house in order by declaring the flying of GDR flags and insignia a public order offense (1959). Host nations around the world came under pressure to exclude East German sports teams for minor breeches of convention, and the GDR often obliged by withdrawing, sometimes with their Eastern allies in tow, to great publicity effect. 

Oddly, Bonn’s general obsession with symbols seemed to function positively for both parties: while the GDR manipulated them to “advance in tiny increments,” minor infringements permitted the Federal Republic to “register complaints with local governments . . . to demonstrate earnestness without invoking any heavy-handed threats about breaking diplomatic relations.” In other words, the fine print of Hallstein allowed both sides to articulate Cold War politics while keeping them in check. Sport, paradoxically, was a different kind of game—one in which the Federal Republic’s fixation with symbols left it exposed on two flanks. First, it was vulnerable to the “cat-and-mouse game” of permissible national emblems at international events, the GDR reveling in the ever-changing minutiae of the regulations and switching its badges, vests, and tracksuits to maximum annoyance at the eleventh hour. Second, it fell increasingly foul of decisions taken by NGOs that were beyond the reach of governmental influence.

While sports events of all kinds—from skydiving to junior table-tennis—in all parts of the world were affected by feuds over German representation, the symbol-laden arena of the Olympics provided the main theater of contestation. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) struggled with the “querelles allemandes” for over a decade and a half. In 1951 in Vienna, it recognized the National Olympic Committee of the Federal Republic as the “NOK für Deutschland” and rejected the GDR’s application for membership. Only the West Germans, themselves excluded from the first postwar Games in London 1948, were allowed to compete at Helsinki 1952. The IOC revised its decision in Paris in 1955, provisionally recognizing the GDR as the “NOK für Ostdeutschland” on the condition that it form a joint team with the West Germans—an arrangement that lasted for three Games from 1956 to 1964. In Madrid in 1965, the IOC crossed the Rubicon and granted the GDR full rights as a geographical area with a separate team for Mexico 1968, albeit still within the joint framework. At the session held immediately prior to those Games, it completed the process, finally redesignating the GDR as the “NOK der DDR” (or “Deutschland-DDR” for the purposes of competition) and permitting a fully independent team for the next Olympics in Munich.

The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany (Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism Book 42) by Kay Schiller, Chris Young

After the 1966 European track-and-field championships, the West German foreign office wrote a paper discussing the troubles of enforcing the Hallstein doctrine in international sports. 

Flag and anthem protocol at the European track-and-field championships in Budapest in August [of 1966] lit the government’s touch-paper. Despite assurances from the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) that the Madrid formula would be applied, winning athletes from the GDR were honored with full national colors. With the West German team refusing to boycott the event as requested, the government had been forced to look on impotently. The cabinet was gravely concerned that such incidents could multiply and force the Federal Republic into accepting the GDR flag in Munich. Some argued the Games should be given back immediately (under the pretense of financial strain), others that funding be withheld for the foreseeable future. Although neither suggestion was pursued, a feeling took hold that sports resources should become dependent on their recipients’ support for “the Federal Republic’s vital political interests.” Word spread of CDU discontent and rumors circulated that the IOC might transfer the 1972 Olympics to Stockholm.

In subsequent weeks, the Foreign Office drafted a perspicacious paper on the problems of enforcing Hallstein in international sport. This recognized, first, that despite NATO’s recent commitment to flag and anthem codes, member states were already applying regulations less strictly than desired. Second, it noted the unwillingness of Western governments to interfere with international federations, sport being considered separate from politics but valued for its galvanizing effect among those levels of society “particularly inclined to emotional forms of response and with little grasp of political matters.” And third, it lamented, while sports officials in the Eastern bloc were nourished on a direct political drip, Bonn held little sway over its own representatives who viewed the political aspect of international sport as the prerogative and duty of governments alone.

The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany (Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism Book 42) by Kay Schiller, Chris Young

By 1970, West Germany stopped enforcing its rules against the display of East German insignia domestically:

Notwithstanding some minor governmental triumphs at sports events, the interior ministers had pressed their case further by June 1969, and NATO relaxed its regulations. Thus, long after they had in any case become ineffectual, the final impediments to the smooth running of international meets were removed. The government could do little but echo NATO’s guidelines and permit the organizers of events in West Germany to fly their rival’s flag if required to do so by their federation. When Brandt came to power that year, there was little more to do. In the short term, the new chancellor and his secretary of state, Egon Bahr, “found it expedient” to continue Hallstein generally. But in March 1970, they acceded to the Länder’s wishes by lifting the 1959 restrictions and instructing their embassies—albeit without public announcement—to take no further steps against insignia at sports events, trade fairs, and exhibitions.

The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany (Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism Book 42) by Kay Schiller, Chris Young

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