“I know what stigma means…”Christian Schenk, Olympic champion in the decathlon

Olympic victory in 1988, diagnosis of “bipolar disorder” in 2009, confession to doping in 2018. Former decathlete Christian Schenk keeps picking himself up and is now committed to the topic of inclusion. We spoke to the 57-year-old about courage in dark times and why inclusion is a matter close to his heart.

At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Christian Schenk put on the crown in athletics: he won the gold medal in the decathlon. 30 years later his book “Riss – My life between anthem and hell” was published (published by Verlag Droemer Knaur). In it he grants an intimate, very existential look into his sick soul. It is a life confession that tells the deep blackness in the life of a person who once stood in the glaring light. But the 57-year-old is not giving up, although he says he had to spend around 90 weeks in a psychiatric ward.

In 2018 Schenk’s book “Riss – My life between anthem and hell” was published

Image credit: all inclusive Rostock

Today, Schenk knows exactly when to downshift one or more gears. And he has discovered a new topic close to his heart: inclusion. In his eyes, sport is ideal for connecting people – with and without disabilities. Schenk recently organized the “all inclusive” festival in Rostock for the first time – Olympic a weekend with various events such as readings, Olympic cinema screenings, symposiums, round tables and sporting activities. We spoke to him about serious and happy topics and how he wants to make inclusion light, positive and catchy.

Trigger Warning: This interview is about depression and suicide. In some people, these topics can trigger negative reactions. Please be careful if this is the case for you. Help for those affected is available from the Deutsche Depressionshilfe online or by calling 0800/3344533.

ISPO.com: The European Championships in Munich have just come to an end, with a German gold medalist in the decathlon – what else do you think Niklas Kaul is capable of?

Christian Schenk: Niklas is an athlete who has the rare prerequisite of having parents who understand something about the subject and the training methods. Who act in the best possible way in his interest. That’s ideal. They don’t necessarily pursue immediate success, but instead focus on continuous improvement. He became world champion very early on. Now he has a partly very good technique and he will certainly get stronger and stronger in the years to come. That’s always better than the other way around. So I think he has potential. Certainly also 8,6000, 8,700 points to be surpassed.

8488 points in the decathlon: Schenk wins Olympic gold in 1988

Image credit: Sven Simon / Imago

After the recent World Cup, there was a lot of talk about the crisis in German athletics. What do you think about that?

It’s a steady decline in results. According to Gaussian normal distribution, the number Olympic of talents from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s must always be the same. But we don’t see it that way, so the framework conditions are not suitable.

Can you explain Olympic in more detail?

I believe that every coach can justifiably tell the parents of his protégés about their sporting development and say: ‘Do it!’. But if you then ask how the professional and personal development is in Olympic, it will certainly be a not so fluent ‘yes’. When it comes to financial security, you will put the first question mark. And when asked about career development, there are four, five, six question marks. As long as this is the case, we will continue to have a decline in performance. Success then only happens by chance, like now with Niklas.

Crisis in German athletics

Do you think there are other reasons for this crisis?

Yes. If we don’t have winners, we don’t have any role models for young people either. It is not based on the 18th of a World Cup. My younger son recently told me another reason. He plays basketball and beach volleyball and when asked, he said, ‘Why don’t you do track and field? Because I can’t show my style there Olympic. I have it at the game.’ That’s a very noteworthy statement, because young people want to be different. And if you are told how to run hurdles, for example, that is not attractive to a young person. Point. An exception is certainly the pole vault.

Christian Schenk as a coach for children and young people

Image credit: all inclusive Rostock

Does that mean you weren’t exactly thrilled with the results of the World Championships in Athletics?

I always say that we now have to compete against the Chinese, the French, the Swiss and the Americans in global competition. And the Germans won two out of 147 medals at the World Championships, two medals Olympic. You can still say: We have the European Championship. But I sat there and was sad and thought to myself, that can’t be! The result was better at the European Championship, but not compared to the world standard.

For the first time inclusive festival in Rostock

Let’s move on to a happier event for you: you recently organized the “all inclusive” festival in Rostock for the first time. How did that happen?

Pure coincidence. A friend asked me in 2020 if I would like to become a state coach for para-athletics in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. And this position really fascinated me, even though I only held it for a year. I like to live and work in an interdisciplinary way. That’s why, after I was no longer a trainer, I decided: Let’s look at the topic of inclusion from an interdisciplinary perspective. And that was welcomed: by industry, by science, by culture. That’s why I’m doing this festival. We mustn’t forget: we have an incredible target group. Twelve million people in Germany have a handicap.


Great success for organizer Schenk: 1st festival “all inclusive” in Rostock

Image credit: all inclusive Rostock

The idea for the festival is inspired by the film ‘The Best Friends’ – is that right?

Yes, I see Omar Sy as a role model. Because the film about a paralyzed aristocrat who has hired an unconventional caregiver from a problem area conveys the topic of inclusion in a brilliant way. Seen by 80 million people in Europe. So it works.

The topic of inclusion “must get more publicity”

What messages should “all inclusive” convey? 

First: We want to make offers for people with disabilities. 

Second: We want to create encounters because two thirds of people don’t even know what inclusion is. 

And thirdly, we want to make inclusion young and happy. Because for many, the topic is still too cumbersome. It also needs to get more publicity, it needs to be presented in a light, positive and catchy way. That’s why I asked 20 well-known personalities from Germany to say something about it.

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To what extent is sport suitable for inclusion?

In my opinion, it is the largest window. Because Paralympic sport can show more than literature or drama. And sport has this fascination of reaching more people. We want to create offers. Because it’s not about offering more dancing or Olympic drawing or whatever for a whole year. We don’t help with that. Because the one who is impaired says: You probably don’t have all the cups in the cupboard. You don’t need to help us, we can manage on our own. We want to participate. And this understanding will bring with it many philosophical talks that we will organize, because there is a completely wrong understanding in the wording too.

You can find a selection of inclusive brands for sportswear here.

But you want your commitment to inclusion to go beyond this festival?

Yes, we don’t just want to organize the festival, we want to do it “all inclusive” 365 days a year. It’s important to me not to turn it into a circus event, but there is a lot of content. And we want to advise so that inclusion is implemented more sustainably and the participation of people with disabilities is improved Olympic. For example, we also want to reach companies. They say inclusion is expensive and requires a lot of staff. It’s correct. So we have to do something. And we are very fortunate that no one can have anything against it. That was also rare in my life up until now.

Schenk wants to improve the participation of people with disabilities – here with Hanna Wichmann

Image credit: all inclusive Rostock

“I know what exclusion means”

What do you mean by that?

I know what stigma means. I know what exclusion means. I know that only too well. As a high-performance athlete, you are sometimes extremely active and also behave antisocially. If you want success, then so be it. And Goethe wasn’t a do-gooder either.

You certainly experienced stigmatization after the outbreak of your illness and the publication of your book about your life with bipolar disorder in 2018?

Yes. In 1994 I was diagnosed with relief depression for the first time. When your body shuts down from 40 hours of training to zero, you have 40 hours a week where you don’t know what to do. I went along with it for half a year, with all the dramas. Then I was taken to a psychiatrist because I couldn’t do it on my own. And he gave me a solution.


Specialists speak of positive reinforcement. In a nutshell, that means remembering your past, what you did best, and starting again. After half a year I got out of my low. But then in 2009 I worked so much that I had a loss of energy, what I call depression – caused by the divorce and many other things. The diagnosis: Olympic bipolar disorder. From then until 2017 I was actually sick all the time. So probably eight years. It was really bad for three years: I must have spent 90 weeks in a psychiatric ward. And I don’t want to experience that time again. But somehow you have to get out of it. You can do that initially with medication and therapy. And then you have to find a solution for yourself.


Dark times are behind the Olympic medalist when his book is published in 2018

Image credit: all inclusive Rostock

Courage and the thought of the sons

During these dark times, what kept you from turning your suicidal thoughts into action?

Ultimately courage to live. I told myself I have two sons. Reason not to break up.

If you feel bad these days, what do you do then? 

There are omens that manifest themselves in slowing down, in a lack of time management, in indolence. So I know when these happen, then something is wrong. In an interview, Loriot once answered my question as to how he manages his workload: ‘Young friend. I always start much too late, but I finish at just the right time.Olympic’ It’s the same with me. But when you’re sick, you just can’t do it anymore. Then I’ll be an athlete again. Just as you do your 15 training sessions a week, you also incorporate at least four or five regenerative measures. Away from sleep, because this is the best regulator. That’s why I lie down when I’m tired. And very important: I eat very well and am physically active.

Here you can find out why mental health is so important in sport.

Sport with a focus on joy and a healthy diet

Sport is a good keyword: how much do you still do?

I ride my bike a lot of kilometers every day. And now in summer I play beach volleyball twice a week. Also, I go to the gym regularly. So I’m fit.

But all without a training plan?

Completely without a training plan, just joyful. Also, as I said, I watch my diet. After my serious illness I was very overweight. I then asked my older son how to lose weight easily. Then he said: ‘Dad, not with sport, but watch what you put in your mouth, then you’ll lose more weight.’ I did that and it became 20 kilograms.


Fit again and settled into his new life: Christian Schenk in the stadium

Image credit: all inclusive Rostock

Your discipline probably helps you with many things?

Well, as a young person I was certainly too disciplined and certainly too egomaniacal. As an athlete and as an individual. Luckily I don’t have to be anymore. But I have the courage that a high-performance athlete also has to push the boundaries a bit. And people are going along with it, that’s the nice thing about it.

1 thought on ““I know what stigma means…”Christian Schenk, Olympic champion in the decathlon”

  1. Reading your article helped me a lot and I agree with you. But I still have some doubts, can you clarify for me? I’ll keep an eye out for your answers.

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