A tie-breaking race was all that stood between East Germany’s Christa Rothenburger-Luding and a medal that would earn her a singular place in the Olympic record books. If she won her semifinal race in the women’s track cycling event at the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, she’d clinch a spot in the finals and be guaranteed at least a silver medal. She needed just one more win to make sports history: the first athlete to win medals in two separate Olympic Games in the same year.
Rothenburger-Luding, then 28 years old, was already a three-time Olympic medalist before she competed in Seoul. She won her two golds and one silver in speed skating, the sport in which Rothenburger-Luding had been competing since she was 14.
Coming off a bronze finish in the 1979 World Sprint Championships, her coach and future husband Ernst Luding advised her to add cycling to her training to boost her results. Luding knew that cycling would require the same speed and strength she needed to skate. Rothenburger-Luding, on the other hand, didn’t think cycling would come naturally to her.
"I was convinced that as soon as I tried to ride, I would undoubtedly topple right over," recounted Rothenburger-Luding in Sport of the German Democratic Republic.
However, Rothenburger-Luding quickly became comfortable on a bicycle and her new training regime helped her win speed skating gold and set an Olympic record of 41.02 seconds in the 500m when she made her Olympic debut at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games. When she wanted to begin competing internationally in track cycling, the East German sports federation initially told her to focus on her skating. After petitioning, the federation finally let her compete in both, and soon the Olympic champion’s dominance spread from speed skating to cycling.
She won her first of two gold medals at the World Sprint Speed Skating Championships in 1985, then claimed a gold at the 1986 World Sprint Track Cycling Championships. The sprinter was a regular champion on the speed skating World Cup circuit as well; she won the two overall World Cup medals, 500m gold and 1000m silver, during the 1985-6 season.
Many athletes have had success in both track cycling and speed skating throughout history, but few experienced the success she had in both sports at the same time. Rothenburger-Luding was only the second woman ever, after American Sheila Young, to be a world champion in both speed skating and track cycling.
Rothenburger-Luding also had a new opportunity to show she was the world’s best in two different sports. In 1984, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) decided to add a women’s track cycling sprint event to the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. This was the first women’s track cycling event ever held at the Olympics, giving Rothenburger-Luding the chance to complete a rare Olympic double: competing in both the Summer and Winter Games.
After successfully qualifying for both the 1988 Calgary Winter and Seoul Summer Olympics, her first competition was on the ice. In Calgary, Rothenburger-Luding had two of the best performances of her career in the 500m and 1000m.
In the 500m, Rothenburger-Luding lived up to her reputation as the gold medal favorite when she set a new world record of 39.12 seconds. But it wasn’t quite enough, as U.S. speed skater Bonnie Blair beat Rothenburger-Luding’s time by .02 seconds to win gold and push Rothenburger-Luding into the silver medal position. Blair would go on to become one of the U.S.’ most decorated Winter Olympians, winning five Olympic golds and one bronze in speed skating from 1988 to 1994.
"She was one of my biggest rivals," Blair told NBC Olympics. "When I look back at it, I wish I would have known how to speak German. I wish I would have been able to talk to her a little bit and, “where are you coming from? What do you do?” just to have a conversation."
In the 1000m, Rothenburger-Luding’s fiercest competitor was her East German teammate Karin Enke. Enke—who shared the podium with Blair and Rothenburger-Luding when she earned bronze in the 500m just four days prior—won 1000m gold in the 1984 Olympics and held the world record of 1:18.27 seconds entering the competition in Calgary. There were three new world records set in the event (Blair, Enke and Rothenburger-Luding), but ultimately it was Rothenburger-Luding who won gold by a .05-second margin over Enke. Rothenburger-Luding’s world record performance of 1:17.65 would not be broken for another decade. She left Calgary with one gold and one silver medal.
"She was a fighter," Blair added. "And from what I watched and witnessed, she worked very hard at what she did."
Seven months later, Rothenburger-Luding would suit up for the Seoul Summer Games, her second Olympics of 1988. After cruising through the track cycling quarterfinals, Rothenburger-Luding was matched up against France’s Isabelle Gautheron to gain a spot in the finals. Gautheron had the second best time in qualifications, just .08 seconds faster than Rothenburger-Luding. After being tied 1-1, in a win-or-go-home time, Rothenburger-Luding edged out her French opponent for a chance to earn her second gold this year. Only Erika Salumae, an Estonian native who competed for the Soviet Union, stood in her way.
Salumae and Rothenburger-Luding developed a fierce rivalry in the years since Rothenburger-Luding started competing in track cycling. When the East German won at the 1986 World Championships, Salumae came in second place. The following year, Salumae seized world gold and snatched the top spot in sprint cycling away from Rothenburger-Luding. Then in 1988, the two athletes faced off one more time: for Olympic gold.
Rothenburger-Luding took the first time, biking an 11.68 lap—her second best stretch throughout the entire Olympics. With fatigue setting in, Salumae won the second time in 12 seconds flat. Then there was one lap left to determine which athlete would stand on the top of the podium.
Rothenburger-Luding held a slim lead throughout most of the final race, keeping Salumae just moments behind her. But in the final 200m, Salumae gave one last all-out sprint towards the finish line and passed Rothenburger-Luding to earn gold.
"After the final race I talked with my husband Ernst. We both agreed that the difference was only six inches at the finish," Rothenburger-Luding recounted in Bud Greenspan’s 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History.
Despite her disappointment, by winning a silver in Seoul Rothenburger-Luding became the first woman to win medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. In the 30 years since, only two other women, Canada’s Clara Hughes and the U.S.’ Lauryn Williams, have accomplished the same feat.
Hughes won two track cycling bronzes at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and four speed skating medals—one gold, one silver and two bronze—at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics. Williams won a gold and silver medal on the track at the 2012 and 2004 Summer Olympics, and a silver medal in two-woman bobsled at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Rothenburger-Luding will likely be the only Olympian ever to win medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics in the same year. In 1986, the IOC decided to stagger the Winter and Summer Games so one would occur every two years from 1994 on. 1988 and 1992 were the last Olympic cycles to have two Olympics in the same year.
Rothenburger-Luding ended her career after earning bronze at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. She would finish with five medals: two golds, a silver and a bronze in speed skating and a silver in track cycling.