‘Alternative Service’ in Sports

Heeressportzentrum, training for combat on the fields of play; “non-military value added for Austrian health management.”

Doris and Stefanie Schwaiger, Austria’s most successful beach volleyball duo | Photo courtesy of www.schwaiger-sisters.at

I check my watch. It is 10:00 sharp. Nervously, I enter the induction center of the Austrian armed forces in Vienna’s 2nd District. Immediately, I am surrounded by four or five young men in uniform, eager to help me find Colonel Gerhard Eckelsberger, who since 2002 has been head of the Herressportzentrum, the Military Sports Center of the Austrian Armed Forces.

As they fan out to find the colonel, I find myself in a big hallway, feeling like some exotic creature in a zoo, stared at by an exclusively male audience, who seems to be quite taken aback by the presence of a female in their dominion.

“Are you a journalist?” I answer in the affirmative. “Well, you should not even be here… Orders from above….” This is the inner sanctum of the Austria military; but I am expected, and eventually, I am offered an office to wait in.

Minutes later, a man of about 50 years with short hair, tinged with gray enters the room. Wearing a military uniform and green beret that signals his position, Colonel Eckelsberger radiates authority, accentuated even more by his upright posture and firm handshake.

“I hope you are an early riser,” he says with a smile on his face and informs me about my appointment for the next morning – at 6:15 a.m.  A quick call and he has already arranged a lift for me to Maria Enzersdorf, where I will spend the day with the athletes of the Südstadt, one of the ten high-performance centers of the Austrian military.

As we find a table in a Schanigarten on Volksgartenstrasse, I already have a sense of how passionate he feels about his job, and about sports in general.

“Being able to work with athletes and to support them in their professional endeavors,” is what Colonel Eckelsberger enjoys the most – “not always easy, but very rewarding.”

The idea that soldiers could train for a sport on a professional level goes back to the 1950s, when officers who were dedicated sportsmen themselves pushed the importance of physical performance. They believed it mattered not only for the military, but for Austria in general – which Eckelsberger refers to as “non-military value-added for Austrian health management.” Close ties with various sports associations enabled the military to assign talented athletes to military sections in a way that would allow them to continue to train for their particular sports. In 1962, the sports promotion and training Program was institutionalized with the creation of the Army Sports and Close Combat School, renamed in 1998 as the Heeressportzentrum.  Financed by the Ministry for Defense and Sports under Norbert Darabos, the HSZ has enjoyed relatively generous funding to date but may face some “financial constraints” in the current round of cuts.

Throughout our conversation, Colonel Eckelsberger continues to stress that the Austrian military is only one program among many, including associations and unions whose cooperation he considers of primary importance. Nevertheless, the Austrian military does act as the primary supporter of Austrian athletes on several professional levels. The program focuses primarily on training, sports science and the support of professional athletes, but also includes the training of instructors.

In the course of our interview, Colonel Eckelsberger accompanies his descriptions with lively anecdotes from his career in the military, the most memorable competitions and the studies conducted as part of the sports science program of the HSZ. As he talks, making sweeping gestures with his hands for emphasis, I can feel the passion this man has for his job. Gesticulating enthusiastically, his voice becomes louder, and in his eyes you can see the excitement, evoked by old memories and achievements.

“At the beginning of my activities in the HSZ in 2003, “an Austrian military athlete won the gold medal in the military pentathlon world championship, a discipline that was dominated by the Chinese and Brazilians for decades,” Eckelsberger says proudly. As he looks back on this Wahnsinnserfolg, this moment of glory, you can feel the longing in his voice as he goes on to tell how he watched the Austrian athlete “run for his life…”

From his position, Colonel Eckelsbeger hopes to raise public awareness and acceptance of the Austrian military, in an attempt to get rid of its stuffy image. Although he sees potential for improvement in the direct support of athletes, including coaches, masseurs, physiotherapists and sports psychologists, he regards the HSZ as a very successful sports institute, one that also supports talented female athletes, like Doris and Stephanie Schwaiger, Austria’s most successful beach volleyball duo.

The sisters are two of the 350 military competitive athletes currently enrolled in the program of the Austrian military. Out of 30,000 new recruits each year, approximately 150 are coached as part of their basic military service, while the rest of the 350 has a long-term commitment. Since 1998, when women were first allowed to apply for the program, the number of female athletes has been growing. This year, 63 women are registered, double that just a few years ago.

The duo just got back from a tournament in Russia when they agreed to meet for breakfast at the Südstadt high performance center in Maria Enzersdorf outside Vienna.

While the Schwaiger Sisters help themselves to some apples, pears and bread, they chat with Maxim Podoprigora, who was the first Austrian ever to win a world cup medal in swimming – a silver medal in 2001. Talk is of previous tournaments as well as upcoming competitions before the four athletes turn to the “important things in life” –things like the habit of endurance athletes to take a roll of toilet paper with them, the unflattering shorts on skinny male beach volleyball players, as well as funny interview mishaps on Austrian television that make them burst out in laughter.

Important as it is, professional competition isn’t everything. Both sisters were passionate tennis and handball players before deciding to pursue a volleyball career in at the age of 16, and both are making plans for what they will do when it is over: Steffi wants to work with horses and Doris is currently enrolled in the law program of a distance learning university.

A deputy Commander of the Südstadt later explains to me the intricacies of the system, emphasizing the importance of a formal education and professional training for athletes some of whom focus too exclusively on their sport and thus find it hard to gain a foothold in a profession after their athletic career is over.

Doris and Stefanie have been part of the HSZ program since October 2009, when they completed their basic military service. At first, Doris confesses, she was a bit skeptical.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “I tend to have weird sleeping habits, and I wasn’t sure if I could share a room with eight other girls.”

In the end, however, everything turned out fine, and both sisters say the program was “the best thing that could have happened to [them]”. They even got used to having to get up at 5:00 am for their two-hour drive from their home in the Waldviertel to the Südstadt for roll call, which they often miss because of their demanding travel schedule, especially in the spring and summer months. They are currently ranked among the Top 10 in the world and have achieved a second place ranking in an important Grand Slam in Norway, as well as the fifth place at the Beijing Olympics, which they consider their “greatest success”.

Results like this demand great discipline and rigor. In the winter, Doris and Steffi practice about 25 hours per week, while in the summer they get enough playing time in tournaments and use the practice sessions to improve their technique. Besides the good training conditions, as athletes of the Austrian armed forces, they are insured and receive a monthly salary. Since, as beach volleyball players, Steffi and Doris are dependent on prize money, the monthly salary they receive from the ministry provides them with financial stability while allowing them to pursue their sport on a professional level.

Currently, Stefanie and Doris are training for the Grand Slam in Klagenfurt, which is their biggest home tournament and takes place every year on the last weekend of July. “We love the atmosphere there and it is a great opportunity to present ourselves to the sponsors and our fans,” Doris explains. Their long-term goal is the 2012 Olympics in London, where “a rank in the top five would be great,” says Stefanie in a dreamy voice, with a glow in her eyes.

When it comes to doping, however, the sisters become very serious. “Pressure for high performance can never be an excuse for doping,” says Stefanie. “We take our function as role models very seriously. We want to show young people how important it is to do sports, instead of sitting in front of the TV or the computer the whole day.” Colonel Eckelsberger agrees, emphasizing the military’s duty to positively influence young people’s habits and attitude towards exercise in the course of their military service. To raise public awareness, presentations and lectures are held at the HSZ by NADA (National Anti-Doping Agency Austria) representatives.  It is often issues of money, the Colonel suspects, reasons such as pressure from sponsors and the prospects of bonuses that may push the athlete to take such big risks. But he does not believe that “athletes can be tested and controlled in a way that doping can be ruled out completely.” Even more alarming, however, is the widespread use of doping by amateur athletes, which he considers particularly harmful to the credibility of the sport.

The Schwaiger sisters prefer the healthy path to the top: practice, practice, practice. And so training in all weather is routine, despite pouring rain and relentless wind, Steffi tries to see the positive side, of diving for the ball in the cold, wet sand: “Difficult weather conditions help us prepare for hard games,” she grins.

Peter Gartmayer, another successful Austrian beach volleyball player joins the Schwaiger Sisters and their coach for practice and soon they set and receive balls, practice attacks and blocs as well as serves with great discipline.

It is raining hard, and Doris walks over to lend me her rain jacket.

“Today, it is really hard for us to practice because the rain keeps getting into our eyes,” she admits. A few minutes later, I get Steffi’s jacket as well – they must have felt pity on me, standing in the rain looking forlorn. In one of the short breaks, they even offer some advice on how my brother, an enthusiastic amateur, can improve his skills.

As I put on the second raincoat, I feel the sand from the court on my hands. There is a sudden urge deep inside me to join the players on court, to dive into the sand, to jump for the ball and to smash it with all my strength…

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