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A life in volleyball fit for a Hollywood film

 
Andre Schulz (left), the German men's national team and coach Andrea Giani (second from left, back row)
Lausanne, Switzerland, November 6, 2017 - Volleyball continues to play a leading role in the life of Arnold Schulz, a world champion in 1970 with the former German Democratic Republic.

"But it's now 'IT volleyball', rather than volleyball in a practical sense. I have been retired for nearly ten years now, but the sport keeps me young,” says Schulz, who has built up Germany’s most comprehensive volleyball results service over a period of 20 years.

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Schulz is now 74 years old. His hair may be grey, but he talks about his successful volleyball career with enthusiasm and energy. After playing football and taking up boxing in his early years, he switched to volleyball when he was 17. And was an immediate success. In 1966, he was named best hitter at the FIVB Volleyball Men's World Championship in Prague – just six years after first getting involved in the sport.

East Germany claimed a fourth place at the World Championship and repeated the performance two years later at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. But there is a story behind that result which exemplifies the political turmoil of the times.

The German Democratic Republic were scheduled to take on the Soviet Union, but their opponents were very late for the game. "They were intimidated by us. We warmed up for two hours. We only let ourselves be talked into playing because the TV people insisted on it. But it was obvious that we would be awarded the game due to the delay," says Schulz. "So spending more than five hours in the arena and losing 2-3 did not seem so bad after all."

However, that evening the head of the East German Olympic team instructed coach Jenter to withdraw the formal protest concerning their opponents' late arrival, which had been made after the end of the match. "There was immense pressure. The Russians had failed in the Summer Games and 1968 was a very eventful time. In the end, we agreed. If we hadn’t done that, we probably would never have travelled anywhere as sportsmen again.”

After returning home, each player on the East German team was awarded the Order for Services to the Fatherland in bronze, normally reserved for medal winners, plus 10,000 GDR marks, a substantial amount at the time. “Those in charge of the sport kept their promises. But of course, no-one could replace the Olympic medal we lost.”

Two years later, Schulz and his team became world champions. Claiming the title in Bulgaria in 1970 remains the greatest achievement in German volleyball history to this day. Schulz looks back on the final in Sofia as "the most legendary event in my sporting career."


Part of Arnold Schulz's impressive collection of medals, including the 1970 World Championship gold (second from right) and the 1972 Olympic silver (first from right)

Cheered on by their vocal fans, hosts Bulgaria were ahead 13-5 in the decisive fifth set. “The fans were just unbelievable. We could not communicate with one another and people were throwing things at us at the breaks. With the score at 13-5, however, the Bulgarians started to get nervous and the crowd got quieter and quieter. That was their mistake. Everything we did worked out,” remembers Schulz. "All the teams watching were supporting us, especially the West German team." 

East Germany were not able to triumph at the Munich Olympics in 1972, however. The Japanese team were just too strong. However, Schulz's team did at least claim an Olympic silver medal, which had escaped their grasp four years earlier for political reasons.

What made the team so successful? "We worked so hard, training for over 30 hours a week. Where do you see that nowadays? Everything was driven by the sport, including our nutrition. We were all extremely athletic and our spikers could all jump over a metre. We also had great technical and tactical training. We were a great team and we were just indestructible," says Schulz.

Schulz does not have a bad word to say about his time as a sportsman: "Without sport, I would have been nothing. The GDR training system was superb, with base camps and talents that should have been used after German reunification too." He did not toe the line politically and realised that the future held little for him in the former German Democratic Republic, absconding during the 1982 Volleyball World Championship in Argentina. Schulz was there as a referee. “My family knew nothing about this as I did not want to put them in danger. I took a massive risk,” says Schulz. It took over two years to get permission for his wife and two children to leave the country.

Schulz is also extremely proud of his wife, who stood by him during that difficult period. “Absconding was the right decision at the time. It really made a difference for the children,” he says. His daughter Steffi has an orthodontic practice in Ottobrunn. His son Steffen is a qualified engineer, who has returned to his former home, Leipzig, to pursue a career there. Arnold Schulz and his wife live in Unterschleißheim near München, which has become his second home since making his escape in 1982.


Germany coach Andrea Giani and Arnold Schulz pose for a photograph

Arno Schulz is still in touch with some of his teammates from the victorious World Championship team and occasionally calls setter Eckehard Pietzsch for a chat on the phone. There have been a few team reunions, including an occasion when the Japanese Olympic champions of 1972 returned to the scene of their triumph in Munich. Arno Schulz remains connected to today's volleyball – thanks to his results service. Schulz was delighted by recent successes for the German national team, such as the sensational bronze medal at the 2014 FIVB Volleyball World Championship in Poland and the silver medal at the European championships in 2017. He hopes Germany will soon be celebrating more successes on the international scene.


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