East Germany’s Katarina Witt won the 1984 Olympic gold medal and sought a back-to-back victory four years later at the 1988 Calgary Games. Witt, and the only woman to beat her since winning her gold, the U.S.’ Debi Thomas, had both chosen to skate their long program to Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.”
Carmen tells the story of a gypsy woman living in Seville, Spain, inciting the passions of the men she comes across. Her latest conquest, Don Jose, is in love with another woman. Don Jose arrests Carmen in the town square, but she convinces him to let her escape by promising a rendezvous later on. He is sent to prison himself for allowing her escape.
But during his sentence, Carmen has been up to her old ways. Carmen convinces Don Jose to leave with her and escape to the mountains. Their trust in each other eventually deteriorates and they split up. Months later, they see each other after a local bullfight. Carmen has another lover, and jealous Don Jose stabs Carmen. She dies in the town square.
At its 1875 Paris premiere, Carmen caused a scandal but quickly became one of the world’s most frequently staged operas.
More than 100 years later, Carmen promised to still incite scandal, this time on Olympic ice in Calgary.
Katarina Witt began skating in Karl-Marx Stadt, East Germany (what is today Chemnitz) when she was 6 or 7 years old. She was introduced to the sport on a kindergarten field trip, designed to give the children hobbies. She begged her parents for lessons, which were free in East Germany.
Witt trained four to six hours per day because she was behind other girls her age. She soon caught the eye of coach Jutta Mueller, the mother of 1968 Olympic silver medalist Gabi Seyfert. She then moved to training in running, hurdling, trampoline, and dance lessons in addition to skating. She took acting lessons as well when she got older. Many speculated she’d finish her career in skating and move into Hollywood, à la Sonja Henie 50 years earlier.
East Germany’s domestic spy organization, the Stasi, had surveilled Witt for years, starting as early as age 7, when she first started skating. Her files, which eventually numbered more than 1,300 pages and filled 27 boxes, were nicknamed “Flop.” By the lead-up to the 1984 Games, it was a 24-hour operation. Her friends and teammates reported information back to the Stasi. Witt was asked to promise not to defect, and for her cooperation, was provided cars (jumping ahead of a 10-year waiting list), an apartment, upgrades to her parents’ home, vacation time in Bulgaria, and a passport allowing her to travel to the West.
She reached the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, skating to tunes like “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “MonaLisa,” and “Embraceable You.” She won gold over the U.S.’ Rosalyn Sumners and subsequently received a reported 35,000 love letters. Witt went onto win the world title at the 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988 World Championships. In 1986, she was edged for silver by the U.S.’ Debi Thomas.
Memorably, at Worlds in Cincinnati in 1987, Witt and her coach arrived draped in gold jewelry and furs. She skated to West Side Story’s famous chorus, “I like to be in America.” Despite gripes that she was playing to the judges and the crowds, Witt one-upped the naysayers and spent a half an hour signing autographs for fans in the stands – a move previously unheard of for the star.
Witt asked East German authorities if she would be allowed to turn professional and tour the world after her competitive career ended. They told her that could happen, but only if she became the first ladies singles skater since Henie to win back-to-back Olympic golds at the 1988 Games.
Debi Thomas was born in Poughkeepsie, New York and moved to Silicon Valley with her family soon after. She was inspired to start figure skating after seeing a show for the first time. In addition to her parents, who divorced, her step brother helped cover the cost of the sport: about $25,000 annually.
Once Thomas had some impressive results on her resume, the financial burden lightened. Amateur rules for Olympic competition had become less strict, and Thomas was able to draw on endorsement money to pay for training expenses (but not cars or living expenses).
Thomas was enrolled in a pre-med curriculum full-time at Stanford, after turning down admission to Harvard and Princeton. A typical day began at 8 a.m. with calculus, followed by chemistry and Western culture classes. She’d have lunch, drive to the rink, and train from about 1 to 8 p.m. She got home and studied until about 3 a.m. “I’m, like, the all-nighter-queen,” she told Sports Illustrated. Her coach was less amused, commenting that she often came to practice exhausted due to her irregular and unusual sleeping and eating habits.
She became U.S. national champion in 1986; the first female champion in 30 years to balance full-time university with competition. The last one to do so was Tenley Albright, who went on to win gold at the 1956 Olympics.
Between nationals in 1986 and the world championships, Thomas told media she had to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, because she had a midterm two days after arriving at home.
At the 1986 World Championships, Thomas captured the title, handing Katarina Witt her only loss since winning her 1984 Olympic crown. Thomas became the first black world champion in the history of the sport.
The year before the 1988 Olympics, Thomas’ California rink shut down. Her coach convinced her to move to Boulder, Colorado to train full-time. She couldn’t give up the studying/ skating balance, though; she took German language classes at the local college as a diversion. If Witt could learn English, she figured, she could learn German.
Witt later recalled that she and her coach came up with the idea to skate to Carmen in the long program about the same time. She could relate to the character, she told the BBC, especially because she liked to have fun, be playful on the ice, and flirt. She found out in the fall that Thomas would skate to Carmen as well.
Thomas found out about Witt’s intentions after an encounter with a friend.
“I ran into a skating friend, a Hungarian ice dancer, last summer, and I told him how excited I was about doing Carmen,” she told the LA Times. “His face dropped. He said, ‘Is it too late to change it?’ He told me he had just been to Katarina's home in Karl-Marx Stadt and that Katarina also was doing Carmen. But I told myself, ‘To heck with it.’ I said to myself that two Carmens might bore the judges, but that I’d just have to beat Carmen at her own game.”
Thematically, each of the programs were intended to be different.
Thomas bluntly summed up the difference between her and Witt’s programs: “She dies, and I don’t.”
Early morning on February 24, 1988, compulsory figures got underway for the ladies event. Neither Thomas nor Witt led the field after the phase, however; Soviet skater Kira Ivanova held fast to first place.
Later that evening, the ladies field contested the short program.
Thomas skated to what the U.S. Olympic Committee described in their report as a “driving, disco beat,” dressed in a black unitard. The audience clapped along to Dead or Alive’s “Something in My House” almost instantly, and they booed the judges’ marks, deeming them not high enough. Regardless, she sat in first place with only the long program remaining.
In the lead-up to the Games in Calgary, Canadian skater Elizabeth Manley’s coach criticized Witt’s short program costume, a high-cut blue number. He thought it best suited for “a circus… all that’s missing is the horse and reins. We’re here to skate in a dress, not in a G-string.”
In order to assuage the negative comments, Witt and coach Mueller had added some feathers to the bottom of the outfit the night before the short program. It was in the rules at the time that points could be deducted for inappropriate dress, but it was rarely enforced. She skated to music from the Broadway show “Jerry’s Girls,” which she believed explained the need for such an outfit.
Witt’s short program was not perfect. She landed her triple loop double toe loop jump combination, despite missing it in the warm up. She won the short program phase, and sat in second place overall.
For her part, Manley slipped into a surprising third place in the standings.
The long program took place February 27.
During the morning practice session, Thomas arrived wearing a sweater that read, “4 MINS & 5 TRIPLES TO GLORY,” referring to her planned technical content in the four minute-long free skate.
Witt recalled being incredibly nervous. She kept returning to the bathroom to apply more makeup.
It was time for Carmen to come to Calgary.
Witt’s Carmen was supposed to be sexy. She opened her program with three jumps in quick succession, before moving to a slower section, allowing her to catch her breath. During that time, she flirted with the judges and the audience. The ending, where Carmen dies, was dramatic. Witt ended her program laying down on the ice – Carmen is dead, after all, and Witt was drained – adding to the theatrics. She landed four triples, but doubled a fifth, and didn’t know if it would be enough to capture Olympic gold a second time.
Thomas skated last of the night, a position she was not familiar with. She gave her coach their traditional high-five at the boards before skating to center ice, but they missed awkwardly.
Thomas planned to open her Carmen program with a difficult triple-triple combination, which she had had success with previously. She landed on two feet instead of one after the second jump, and for the rest of the program, Thomas recalled, her “heart wasn’t it in.” She visibly deflated throughout the remainder of the performance.
Witt watched Thomas skate, hoping her biggest competitor would deliver the battle that had been so well-publicized. But when Witt realized she won, all she felt was relief, like a burden was lifted.
Thomas, who ended up with the bronze medal, didn’t react to any congratulatory words on the podium, and resolved to go back to school.
“Everything is not Cinderella,” she said at the time. She also announced she wouldn’t compete at any other Olympics.
Canadian Elizabeth Manley snuck onto the podium for a silver medal to the delight of the home crowd.
Witt and Thomas went on to lead very different lives following the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
Thomas married Brian Vanden Hogen in March 1988. They met while Thomas was studying at the University of Colorado, training for the Games. They eventually split up, and Thomas married Chris Bequette. Their son, Luc Bequette, is on the football roster for the Cal Bears, and also wrestled in high school.
From 1988 to 1992, Thomas skated on the Stars on Ice tour.
She was a practicing orthopedic surgeon, having gone on to graduate from Northwestern University’s medical school. She later realized she was too much of a contrarian to stay in one practice for too long, and eventually uprooted herself and opened her own practice in Virginia.
But a 2016 Washington Post article reported that she was living with a new fiancée and his two boys in a trailer in the Appalachian Mountains after declaring bankruptcy in 2014. She let her medical license expire and had participated on Oprah Winfrey Network’s show “Iyanla: Fix My Life.” At one point, she was asking for donations via a GoFundMe page.
On the other hand, Witt stayed in the spotlight. In 1989, she filmed a Carmen on Ice Emmy-winning special in Spain with the men’s gold medalist in Calgary, the U.S.’ Brian Boitano. During filming, the Berlin Wall came down and Witt’s life was thrown into turmoil. She feared the people of Germany would hate her from both sides, once it was revealed how her family had benefitted from the government.
“I always felt the East Germans thought she was a capitalist and the West Germans felt she was a communist,” Witt’s longtime friend Boitano told the New York Times in 2010. “She’s famous, but nobody quite understands her.”
In 1992, her “Flop” files were set to be made available to the public. Reading them, Witt said she felt a range of emotions, from shock, to outrage, to laughter. Witt went to court to protect the documents, and only 181 pages were ever released.
Witt competed for Germany at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. She was no longer a medal threat, as the sport had evolved into the world of triple-triple combinations that still exists in the top tier of the ladies field today. She finished seventh after performing as Robin Hood in the short program and a tribute to civil war-torn Sarajevo in the long program, the site of her first gold medal victory.
She toured the U.S. in skating shows for the next decade, including producing her own shows in Europe. She also bought rights and produced German reality tv shows, even hosting them herself sometimes, and endorsed a variety of products. She made a cameo in “Jerry Maguire.” She also did commentary work for her sport for various Olympic Games on both American and German networks.
In 1998, she posed for Playboy, and became the only other person besides Marilyn Monroe to sell out her issue. She wrote in her autobiography that she had near-full autonomy surrounding the entire process. She chose the site (Hawaii), the photographer, and the poses. She explained that she didn’t want the photos to be erotic, but instead, show off a woman celebrating her own body and being comfortable with her femininity. When asked for autographs, she only ever signed the cover, not the nude photos.
Later, Witt was part of the German committee that bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics in Munich, but the proposal lost out to PyeongChang, South Korea.
In 2008, after an eight-city tour across Germany, she retired with a final Carmen performance.
“I always feel I never let her go,” Witt said of her Carmen.
Witt’s legacy in figure skating is far-reaching, from the “Katarina Rule” to skaters who want to perform just like her.
After Calgary, the International Skating Union adopted new rules that dictated that ladies’ outfits should cover their hips and their posteriors, among other things. Also banned were excessive decorations and outfits that showed too much navels, bosom, or derriere. A temporary ban was put on beaded body stockings that Thomas wore at the time.
Carmen remains a popular musical choice for skaters, despite its familiarity over the years.
Ashley Wagner, 2014 Olympic team event bronze medalist, is often knocked for her age in the sport. But as she told NBCOlympics.com, her age isn’t a factor – it might even be an advantage.
“Anytime anyone compares me to Katerina Witt, that’s all I want to hear,” she said. “I am so inspired by the kind of woman that she was on the ice. In skating it’s so easy to focus on the younger girls that dominate this sport. But I am going to be 26 at the Olympics. I want to be a woman on the ice. And Katerina Witt was so sexy, and strong, and unapologetic. And that was really what I wanted to model my athletic career after.”