Kangaroo diplomacy

May 21, 2017

From a mural at Tierpark

Two East German runners – Christa Stubnick and Gisela Köhler – left Melbourne with more than their medals. Both had won silver: Christa had won two in the 100 metres and 200 metres sprints, and Gisela in the 80 metre hurdles, and both lost to Australians: Christa to Betty Cuthbert and Gisela to Shirley Strickland.

Both women were East Germans, had the same trainer, Heinz Birkemeyer, who Gisela would marry in 1957. Not only did they train together, but they looked like sisters, with short hair and both wore glasses, even when they raced.

On leaving Australia they were given a very special present: a small kangaroo. They intended to donate it to the zoo.

Even the establishment of this zoo in East Berlin was caught up in Cold War politics. When Berlin was divided, the city’s famous Zoological Garden was located in West Berlin. The East German government wanted to show it could match its ideological rival that already had its Zoological Garden that was located in West Berlin. And so in August 1954 the communist government decided to create its own zoo, which became Tierpark Friedrichsfelde. The zoo was opened on 2 July 1955 and had yet to acquire a kangaroo. So the present that Gisela and Christa were bringing home was very precious.

The two women doted over the kangaroo, which was just three months old and 30 centimetres tall.  Normally a kangaroo at this age would be in its mother’s pouch, and to

Christa Stubnick and Gisela Köhler

care for one so young they need to be kept warn and given a special diet. It is unclear whether Christa and Gisela knew how to care for their charge. Nevertheless, the kangaroo accompanied their on their charter plane home, with the two women dotting on its “dark, loyal looking eyes and curiosity in which it looked into the world.” The kangaroo’s two foster mothers had lined a linen bag with some woolen clothes so it would keep warm.

When the team landed in Rome they were allowed off the plane to stretch their feet.  It was just an hour’s break, so the women left the kangaroo on the airplane. When they returned, the kangaroo has escaped the bag, and they found it on a seat, dead. They were devastated. “We will ask our Australian friends to send us a second one for our zoo”, Christa suggested to Gisela. There was no second kangaroo sent,

The athletes soon forgot their grief as they were caught up in a whirlwind of celebrations. After they settled down they were invited to Haus des Sports, on Stalin Allee, where they met an sports official, who they called „Santa Claus“, although not to his face. Here Christa and Gisela were handed envelopes. For a silver medal they were given 250 Ostmarks. Had they won gold it would have been 500 Ostmarks. While they had to be amateurs to compete in the Olympic Games, winning was important to the East German government and they quietly circumvented such rules to encourage their athletes to excel.

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