How Should Germany’s Olympic Medals be Counted?

No other country has an Olympic history as confusing and complicated as Germany. The country has been subjected to the unusual situation of having participated at the Olympics under five different circumstances, featuring a wide range of designations, with various issues making it almost impossible to sort German Olympic history into one continuous timeline.

But the issue that seems to come up the most is what happened to the medals won by East Germany? The East Germans were an Olympic power with 519 medals, a staggering figure that when combined with Germany’s other Olympic medals, moves them to behind only the United States in the all-time medal count. In fact, the German Cold War era teams (1952-1988) have more Olympic medals combined than the non-Cold War era teams (1896-1936 & 1992-present).

To recap German Olympic history:

1896-1936: Germany competes as its own nation.
1948: Germany is uninvited to the Olympics.
1952: Only West Germany competes and does so under the German flag.
1956-1964: East Germany and West Germany compete as one nation under a unified Olympic flag.
1968-1988: West Germany competes under its own flag.
1968-1988: East Germany competes under its own flag.
1992-Present: Germany again competes as its own nation.

This raises some questions:

1. Does modern Germany get to claim East Germany?
2. Does modern Germany get to claim West Germany?
3. Can modern Germany claim both East and West Germany at the same time?
4. Are the Unified Olympic flag teams the same thing as a regular German team?

One common misconception about why Germany doesn’t claim East Germany is because of the East German doping scandal. That’s not the biggest obstacle. The single biggest issue is that East and West Germany competed as separate countries simultaneously. Together, they had double the chances to win an Olympic medal than every other country. To combine the medal counts of East and West Germany would result in medal combinations that would have been impossible for a unified German team to win.

One example is the 1972 women’s 4 x 400 relay in athletics (track & field) where East Germany won gold and West Germany won bronze. Every other nation was allowed to enter only one team making it impossible for them to win multiple medals. Even podiums where only one German athlete or team won a medal are still impacted by this problem. The extra entrants improved the overall chances of a German medal as having two teams gives Germany additional competitors making the country less susceptible to injury and/or critical errors.

The IOC website doesn’t have a simplified list where the countries are ranked by number of medals won. Most likely, this specific issue regarding Germany is a key reason why there is no such list easily available on its website. When it comes to Germany, the IOC website omits 1956-1988 from its national profile. As far as the IOC is concerned, neither the Unified German team, East Germany, or West Germany are part of modern Germany’s medal count.

Now it’s time to talk about country names. Various countries insist on being referenced in a specific way. In a couple of extreme cases (Taiwan and Macedonia before they became North Macedonia) it was other countries insisting those countries be referenced in a specific way. Ukraine for example is rather straightforward as Lilia Podkopayeva’s profile shows:

Then there are other countries where its official name gets a little bit more complex when looking at athlete profiles of Li Li, Michael Phelps, and Aliya Mustafina.

Currently Germany is in the category of having a fairly simple and straightforward name. As Kim Bui’s profile demonstrates:

But that wasn’t always the case. The terms “West Germany” and “East Germany” are largely informal names. The problem with directional names for each respective government is that it implied they claimed sovereignty over of only part of Germany. Both nations considered themselves to be the legitimate authority over all of Germany and chose a name which reflected that stance. The official names of the two countries were German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).

The Cold War is filled with these examples and the concept is termed “exclusive mandate.” It was a key issue during the Vietnam War. It remains an issue between Taiwan (Republic of China) and China (People’s Republic of China). The IOC has resolved the Taiwan/China dispute by forcing Taiwan to compete under the name “Chinese Taipei” as part of the Nagoya Resolution. But one country where it still remains a key concept for the IOC is North and South Korea. For example Hong Un-Jong and Yuna Kim:

Moving on to the examples of East and West German athletes…

East German gymnast Maxi Gnauck and famed West German high jumper Ulrike Meyfarth are both listed under the official names of their respective nations have hyphenated years representing the years which their nations had IOC recognition. One thing to note is that it says “GER since” which is more a reference to the IOC transferring the the West German Olympic recognition to modern Germany than the transferring of medals.

The IOC is essentially dancing around the issue by saying “there is a Germany by this name, a Germany by that name” and not making any reference to a connection between the two. If the IOC had any intention of treating East and/or West German Olympic history as connected to modern Germany, their designation would reflect that. A good example of this is Romania.

Nadia Comaneci never competed under the country code “ROU.” During her career Romania used “ROM.” The code has since been retroactively changed because the IOC considerers current Romania to be a continuation of 1970s Romania. If the same policy were in effect for East or West Germany, the country codes would have been retroactively changed to “GER” which is what Germany uses today. They are not.

One important thing to note about the IOC website is that its coding typically lists athletes only under the nation they most recently competed for. Svetlana Boginskaya for example competed under three different flags, the USSR in 1988, the Olympic flag in 1992, and independent Belarus in 1996. Yet her profile lists her only for Belarus.

Disclaimer: The IOC website is quite error prone in regards to athletes who switch nationalities. It is a data entry error as new profiles are created for athletes rather than updating their preexisting profiles. Athletes affected by this error have multiple profiles that only cover a partial stage of their Olympic career. Athletes affected by this trend are those who competed within the last 15 years or so, athletes from nations with a language that is not written in a predominately Latin alphabet, and athletes who have changed nationalities on a frequent basis. Oksana Chusovitina’s profile for example is a complete mess.

The IOC makes it clear that the era in which East and West Germany competed separately (1968-1988) does not go towards Germany. But what about the era from 1952-1964?

The IOC makes it pretty clear that it considers 1952 to be a German team. Werner Lueg’s profile for example is no different than Kim Bui’s. Both are listed under “Germany” and have the same “GER” country code.

And then there is Herbert Klein who competed at the 1952 Olympics, but also the 1956 Olympics. Because the IOC website profiles determine nationality based on their most recent Olympics, Klein is listed under his 1956 nationality. He does not have “GER” as his country code but rather “EUA.” Rather than having the traditional German flag, it is instead laced with the Olympic rings. The 1956-1964 Germans are treated as a separate team.

For the sake of comparison, here’s two other examples of athletes who competed under the Olympic flag. The first is Tatiana Gutsu and the second is Alina Zagitova.

The same website format that lists Herbert Klein under “EUA” and Boginskaya under Belarus because they are entered under the nationality of their most recent Olympics also impacts East Germany’s most famous Olympian. Because she competed after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Katarina Witt has a German profile.

The conclusion here is that 1952 is the only Cold War era team the IOC designates as belonging to modern Germany. And while that may seem harsh, it’s actually quite favorable to Germany that they are being awarded any teams prior to the 1992 Olympics at all. Most notably, Germany’s earliest Olympic medals.

The IOC lists Germany’s Olympic history as being established at the very first Olympics in 1896. Russia on the other hand is listed as being established in 1993 with the 1994 Olympics being the earliest Olympics in its database. Athletes that competed for the Russian Empire from 1900-1912 are treated as a separate nation. Their country code is “RU1” and their country is listed as “Russia” which is not the “Russian Federation” designation that would be in the database for a modern Russian gymnast such as Viktoria Komova.

In other words, Germany gets to claim the German Empire whereas Russia is claiming the Russian Empire.

There is only one Olympics listed as being hosted in Russia, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The 1980 Moscow Olympics are absent from Russia’s profile. Meanwhile Germany is credited as a host nation for the 1972 Olympics on the IOC website despite that very same webpage not crediting the 1972 West German team for Germany.

These are all examples of IOC interpretations being inconsistent. The decision to not give Germany the EUA teams is illogical at face value as that team was subjected to the same country limits as any other nation. It was fundamentally a single team that behaved just like a modern German team.

But there is some logic to the decision when it comes to the issue of precedent. Despite being one team, it still competed under an Olympic flag and retroactively awarding medals won under the Olympic flag puts the IOC in a difficult position. Various nations have been forced to compete under the Olympic flag as a punishment and thus don’t get to claim the medals they won at those specific Olympics. If Germany were to be awarded the teams it won under the Olympic flag, the Russian Federation could use that to argue medals won under “Olympic Athlete From Russia” should be awarded to them.

Then there is the issue of the 1952 team which was fundamentally a West German team, but was awarded to modern Germany for no reason other than a series of technicalities that become contradictory once laid out. Because East Germany specifically rejected competing as a unified team, the IOC lists the 1952 team as if it were modern Germany which heavily implies unification. It results in a bizarre situation where by being less unified, they were actually more unified according to the IOC’s interpretation.

Not only is 1952 listed as a “German” team in 1952 despite not having any unification with East Germany, it didn’t have all the territory of West Germany either. Saar competed as its own team at the Olympics in 1952. In 1957 Saar would be incorporated into West Germany. The 1956 unified German team was not just a unified team of East Germany and West Germany, it was actually the unification of three teams with Saar* being the third team.

There is also the Madmen database which was created by a collection of renowned Olympic historians. Madmen has the tendency to disagree with the IOC on various interpretations that it finds inconsistent and/or incorrect. I personally find Madmen to be superior to IOC when tracking national medal counts and is the source I use for all medal counts on this blog. The Madmen database awards “RU1” to Russia. It also awards “EUA” to Germany giving them all the medals of 1956-1964.

If one wants to find a truly continuous lineage, then Germany from 1896-1952, plus EUA, plus West Germany can all be treated as one continuous lineage connecting to modern Germany. This is even consistent with the political landscape as East Germany was annexed by West Germany. Modern Germany is the legal successor of West Germany. The “GER since” terminology by the IOC regarding West German athletes would also be consistent with arguing a linkage exists between West Germany and modern Germany.

While this interpretation works on a political and logistical basis, it does run into a historical dilemma. It involves retroactively changing the identity of teams that competed as West Germany. And that’s why virtually no one promotes such an interpretation and the IOC despite playing things loose with its “GER since” terminology, doesn’t endorse it either.

The conclusion is:

1. The official IOC position is that no medals from 1956-1988 count for Germany. But every other medal does.
2. The Madmen position which tries to find the fairest and most consistent interpretation has concluded that no medals from 1968-1988 count for Germany. But every other medal does.
3. If you really want to find a continuous link, then every medal except for those won by East Germany should be counted. But this involves stretching the identity of the teams in question and is not an interpretation that I would endorse despite there being some justification for it.

*On an unrelated note, it is sometimes said that the reason why the flag of Europe doesn’t have one star representing each nation is because no one could agree on whether Saar should get its own star as its status as an independent nation was a controversial topic.


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