“We drank a bath of gin and tonic”
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The GDR invited its gold medalists from the 1980 Moscow Olympics to go on a cruise. A lot of alcohol flowed on board the “MS Völkerfreundschaft”, there were bizarre scenes. Including an attempt to escape that was not one at all.
EA high-spirited “Republic flight” with a jump overboard, volleyball on the fishing line and pool party without end – the GDR Olympic champions really had a blast in 1980 on the award trip on the “MS Friendship of Nations” in the Mediterranean.
While the Olympians from the East sailed to Cuba in 1976 as thanks and appreciation, four years later, after the 126 medals from Moscow, they traveled for three and a half weeks from Warnemünde across the Atlantic through the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.
“It was a huge experience for us and our spouses, the ship was like a floating city at the time,” recalls rower Jens Doberschütz, who won gold in Moscow in eight.
“Venice was clearly in East German hands”
While the trips for the Free German Trade Union Confederation (FDGB) usually led to Sochi or to Cuba for at least 3,500 Ostmark, the GDR athletes traveled from the Baltic Sea towards the Atlantic. “At first we had extremely high waves, so everyone was seasick, the full cinema room was suddenly half empty because everyone was standing at the railing and had to do with their seasickness,” said Doberschütz.
That didn’t help with the popular gin and tonic drink. “We started with the first drinks right after breakfast, so the gin was already at the third port and had to be bought again,” said the rower. Doberschütz was in charge with the eighth and especially the handball players, who also won gold, when celebrating. “We had probably drunk a bath of gin and tonic,” said goalkeeper idol Wieland Schmidt.
Fun was programmed with the musical Berlin sextet and cult presenter Helga Hahnemann. “One story remains imprinted: when I was slightly tipsy, I always played a few games. So, sitting in the balancing act, I picked up a matchbox with my mouth in front, ”said Schmidt, adding:“ The unforgettable Helga said that it was nothing. From the cold, she jumped into the balancing act, tore her pants off and, alongside the laughers, earned the utmost respect from the athletes for their strong performance. ”
Via Madeira we went to Málaga in Spain, then the route went via Naples past Capri to Malta and Venice. “It was fantastic, all the couples got their own gondola, so Venice was clearly in East German hands at the time,” emphasized Doberschütz. Then it went on to Dubrovnik and to the terminus in Varna in the Black Sea. While the normal guests were otherwise subjected to surveillance by the State Security, the diplomats in their tracksuits were able to enjoy their trip at ease. According to Doberschütz, “the shore leave was totally easy, we even received pocket money”.
It only got dangerous once: water jumper Falk Hoffmann, who won gold from the tower in Moscow at his third summer games, took a jump from the rail overboard in the midst of a sea rescue exercise by the crew to the surprise of everyone. “While we athletes reacted with thunderous applause, the diver had to dance to the captain,” Doberschütz recalled. The air burned. As one was in international waters, Hoffmann suddenly tried to escape the Republic.
The captain had no understanding for such jokes. Since the wall was built in 1961, a total of 220 people had dared to escape from the GDR by jumping into the water from the “MS Völkerfreundschaft”. Especially in straits like the passage on the Bosphorus, many took their chance.
There was a curse on the ship anyway, which the athletes didn’t know at the time. The ship, flying the Swedish flag as “Stockholm”, collided in 1956 in the fog off the US coast with an Italian liner twice the size – there were 51 deaths – and was later converted into a socialist dream ship. On February 24, 1960, the “MS Völkerfreundschaft”, bought by the GDR and managed by the predecessor of the Aida, Deutsche Seereederei Rostock (DSR), then set sail.
Nothing should be missing, after all, you also imported foreign currency with West German travel providers. There was an outdoor and indoor swimming pool for around 500 passengers, a terrace café with a large dance floor and a cinema for the latest films from the Defa production. And even volleyball could be played on the upper deck, even if the ball “took some getting used to on a tendon so that it would not go overboard,” recalled the 1.96 meter Doberschütz.
The cruiser has been flying the British flag under the name “Astoria” since 2016 – it is the longest-serving transatlantic ship in the world. In 2017, Heidi Klum even filmed a show of “Germany’s Next Top Model” on board.