5 Rings – 5 Questions: World rowing champion Oliver Zeidler opens up about the Olympics, competitive sports in Germany, and the 2024 Games in Paris.
Oliver, you’re all set to lead the rowing squad for the World Championships in Belgrade. What do you think your chances are?
So far, my season has been quite successful, and I’m happy with the progress I’ve made this year. If I manage to stay in the same shape that I was in during the last World Championships, I think I have a good chance of winning at least one medal, if not defending my title. Having said that, I feel pretty good going into the World Championships.
Many of the starting positions for the Olympic Games in Paris will also be determined during the World Championships. How important are the Olympics to you as a professional athlete?
The Olympic Games usually take place every four years. Even though there are only three years in the current, exceptionally shortened Olympic cycle: Every athlete is feverishly striving to make it to the Games. When I was in Tokyo, I realized that the Olympics were completely different from the World Championships. In my opinion, it is the most emotional competition, because there is a very thin line between victory and defeat and the Olympics come with their own set of rules. It may sound strange, but those who have experienced it completely understand.
The Olympic Games are the most important sports competition in the world, which is why so many athletes aspire to reach such heights. They are the optimum opportunity for us to present our respective sports as well as our talent, because we don’t really get much attention otherwise. The Olympics also play a crucial role in getting young people excited about sports and athletic performance.
You’ve been somewhat critical of funding as well as earning opportunities in Germany. What changes do you think need to be made in competitive sports in order to bring about lasting change?
I think a fundamental distinction needs to be made between national and international sports policies, which are decided by the German Federal Ministry of the Interior and Homeland Affairs (BMI) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), respectively.
In Germany, there is a great deal more that could be done in terms of sports funding. The “more” that I’m referring to does not imply that there needs to be an increase in sports funding, but rather that existing funds need to be distributed in a targeted manner. However, in order for that to happen, a clear decision regarding the elimination of bureaucracy would have to be made, and the question of whether Germany should once again be counted among the world’s best would have to be answered.
Such issues would definitely need to be resolved to ensure the success of German athletes and the attractiveness of sports, because we compete against fully professional athletes in most sports areas. Romanian athletes, for example, receive the equivalent of 5,000 euros per month for a world championship title. In Germany, however, we only receive 5,000 euros in additional sports funding over the course of an entire year. There is a huge discrepancy between our country and many others. In other countries, people are free to focus all of their attention on sports, without worrying about running into financial difficulty, and they receive retirement benefits as well. Sports are regarded in a completely different way than they are here in Germany.
“In other countries, people are free to focus all of their attention on sports, without worrying about running into financial difficulty, and they receive retirement benefits as well. Sports are regarded in a completely different way than they are here in Germany.” – Oliver Zeidler
The ultimate decision will be a political one: Can we return to the top of the world rankings? Will we lead the medal table once again? Or, are such goals no longer of importance; are we happy simply participating in events? As an athlete, I always find it a bit disappointing when I go to big events and am expected to deliver top placings. This is different at the international level, as expected top placings are no longer achievable in the long term.
At the international level, it mainly concerns the IOC, as it earns billions from the Olympic Games, but restricts the athletes’ opportunities to earn money, for example, in terms of promotion. Let’s make one thing clear: As many officials can meet as they want without the athletes, The Olympic Games would not exist without the athletes and without the competitions. We are the main players, we perform on the biggest stage, and we make the Games both possible and what they are. As far as I’m concerned, the athletes should be given a piece of the pie, or they should be given the opportunity to market themselves accordingly.
How can hosting the Olympics and Paralympics in one’s own country be of long-term and sustainable benefit to competitive sports?
That brings us back to the political decision that must be made with respect to how we want to position ourselves in that regard. Major sporting opportunities have been created in other countries – both London and Beijing come to mind. A lot of money was invested in sports, and the sports promotion system was greatly improved – simply because, at the end of the day, they wanted to be at the top of the medal table. If Germany continues to do what it is currently doing, that is, making numerous political decisions in other areas and not focusing on sports, then little will change for German athletes, even if the Olympic bid is successful.
An ideal scenario for the next generation of athletes in Germany would include a nationwide boost: Sports facilities would be built or brought up to current standards, sports would become attractive to young people again, and people would be motivated to work hard and do their best. That would enable athletes to optimally train for local games, it would bring skills (back) to the country, and it would eliminate bureaucracy in the sports sector. That’s the ideal image that I have in mind.
I definitely think that there is enthusiasm for sports among the population here, and it would be even greater if local athletes were among some of the world’s elite. A successful Olympic bid could significantly improve conditions for the next generation of German athletes. Ultimately, however, German politicians must also want to be at the forefront of the sporting world and must take the appropriate steps.
Are you looking forward to the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris? Is there a heightened sense of anticipation?
Absolutely. The Tokyo Games were completely different from what my grandfather and other Olympians had told me: Stories of people who spent half their lives saving up to watch the Olympics – once. The coming together of the entire world. A sporting celebration at which athletes could experience the greatest that sports had to offer. Unfortunately, that was not the case in Tokyo due to all of the restrictions. Everyone wandered around wearing masks, daily coronavirus tests were administered, and gastronomic areas were enclosed by Plexiglas screens. We were advised to refrain from interacting with other athletes to the extent possible. There were no spectators. Friends and family members were only able to watch the events on TV. Hopefully, things will be completely different in Paris. I think the Paris Games will feature everything I’d hoped to see in Tokyo. Therefore, my level of anticipation is extremely high.
All sports-related information can be found here.