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Talking Germany

Blog with Peter Craven

Britta Steffen’s two problems

Brittle no more 

She seems very jolly. Straight out of the pool, into the car, and off to the Talking Germany studio. I’m not sure, but I think she’s just done four kilometers of butterfly. Problem is: her hair is still wet and it’s somewhere around minus five degrees outside. At least she does have it wrapped in one of those towel-turbans. Big cause for concern, though, because this is Britta Steffen, Germany’s top medal hope for the upcoming London Olympics – at least among the swimmers. And this can’t be good for her health. Will they blame me if my latest guest on Talking Germany comes down with a cold? Hope not.

Anyway: as I said, very jolly. Which, I have to add, comes as something of a surprise. In the run-up to the show I asked loads of people what they think about the golden girl. And the answer, intriguingly, was always the same. “Well,” people said, “isn’t she a bit Spröde?” Spröde! Now, that’s an interesting German word. One of those – always the most telling – that can’t really be translated. Consult the dictionaries and what you get is: austere, standoffish, aloof, dry, thin-skinned and – this is the closest – brittle. 

This is Britta’s other problem: what the PR people call an image problem. Is it prejudice? Has it perhaps got something to do with her being a sportswoman from eastern Germany? She talks in the show about growing up in the unfashionable town of Schwedt – to which she is very loyal. Or maybe it’s got something to do with being the next big thing after that very marketable product called Franziska van Almsick? But really, and Britta admits this, it’s mainly got to do with the fact that she is, as she puts it herself, “An Angsthase!” A scaredy-cat. 

When it comes to the media, Britta has so often been (sometimes quite literally) on the run. These days, though, she’s not just training very hard for the London games. She’s also projecting a very different Britta Steffen. A Britta who is – genuinely it seems to me – much more at ease which what she has and hasn’t achieved … and with the media. So after the recording, her PR lady comes racing across and says, “Britta that was fantastic, that was great — so natural!” And, I would also say, so frank, thoughtful and charming.


March 4, 2012