CALGARY, FEB. 27 -- Katarina Witt gave an unexpected response when a reporter inquired whether she wanted to make any political statement now that she was out from behind the Iron Curtain. "I would never have been able to become a skater in a capitalist system," Witt replied. "My parents would not have been able to afford it . . . In {East Germany} we are all given the same right to sport."

Witt enjoys a privileged position in East German society, where athletically gifted children are sent off at tender ages to special schools emphasizing sport. The 22-year-old figure skating medalist has her own car and her own apartment, which she did not have to wait 12 years for, and her own state-salaried mentor, the indomitable Jutta Muller.

The story is much different for Witt's archrival in these XV Winter Olympics, Debi Thomas of the United States, and her coach, Alex McGowan. Coach for the 20-year-old Thomas for the last 12 years, McGowan has seen his personal finances and his own business go bust as he focused his energies on six-hour-a-day practices to mold Thomas into a world-class skater.

"When Debi was young she had no money but I saw the promise coming," he said. He waived his coach's fees and gave her free time on the ice of his rink in Redwood City, Calif., throwing his energies into a labor of love. His business' financial problems came to a head last year when the rink's insurance policy was canceled, he recalled ruefully. "I said I was training Debi Thomas. They said, 'We don't care. That has nothing to do with us. We're in the insurance business.' "

With his rink shut down, Thomas had no place to practice until the University of Colorado offered its facilities. McGowan abandoned his other students to go to Boulder to continue to train her. With her world championship in 1986, in which she beat Witt, came lucrative television endorsements and she was able to draw from the trust fund for her training and equipment.

Now, McGowan said, "She's my main source of income. In four weeks, she turns pro and I'm unemployed."

Such is the state of amateur sports in the United States, where U.S. Olympic Committee officials say polls taken by the organization show that Americans prefer corporate sponsorship to government subsidization of athletes in international competitions. But whether a system with the ultimate motivation of raising earnings for Coca-Cola or Merrill Lynch is enough to develop top-caliber winter athletes has been drawn into question by the dismal performance here of the American team.

An indication of the worry was the appointment of New York Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner to chair a special Olympic Overview Commission to chart new directions for the U.S. Olympic effort.

U.S. athletes already had grumbled discreetly about the level of support they have received over the years, particularly those in non-glamor sports like luge and biathlon.

"We're on the verge now. We just need a few more things," said Bonny Warner, who finished sixth in the luge, the best showing ever for a U.S. woman. "So many little things can mean a couple of hundredths of a second. It's tough to have an elite team when you don't have 100 percent to work with."

The bobsleds of U.S. athletes used here were not state-of-the-art, although spokesman Mike Moran said the corporately funded USOC has donated more than $180,000 to the team to develop new sleds. But Moran conceded that sports like luge, figure skating and bobsledding do not get enough money. Thomas' agents said the cost for skaters can run between $35,000 and $40,000 a year for coaches' fees, ice time, skates, costumes, music and choreographers.

Most countries participating in the Olympics have some consistent form of state subsidy. Some, like Canada, have mixed public and private systems. Canada, a country with one-tenth the population of the United States, has a full-fledged Ministry of Fitness and Amateur Sport in Ottawa that has spent roughly $20 million in federal funds over the last five years as part of its "The Best Ever Program," which was combined with about $30 million in corporate donations during that same period. In addition, there is a general athletic appropriation of about $35 million.

Richard Pound, a Montreal lawyer who is vice president of the International Olympic Committee, said he believes corporate sponsorship in Western countries is essential.

"If you don't get corporate sponsorships, you end up relying entirely on the state," he said. "That means the East bloc states have the advantage over everyone else."

Enamored with the private enterprise emphasis of 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics organizer Peter Ueberroth, Canadian Sports Minister Otto Jelinek said in an interview, "We don't go to {corporations} for charitable contributions. We try to sell them on the idea that it will be a return on an investment."

Twenty-two big U.S. and Canadian companies are "official sponsors" of the Winter Olympics and 41 more are "official licensees." Coke is the official soft drink. Visa is the Games' official credit card. Their support, along with Canadian and provincial government aid, is expected to bring the Games a profit estimated at more than $30 million.

But what works well for funding the Olympics may not work well for funding individual Olympians.

The total budget of the USOC, which funds national sports organizations, is about $140 million, virtually all of it coming from corporate donations. Congress did pass legislation permitting the USOC to keep profits from the U.S. Mint's sale of gold and silver Olympic coins, but even with the additional $50 million that is expected to bring, Moran said the USOC is "millions and millions of dollars" short of what is needed for full support of athletes.

The only direct funding to athletes comes from the USOC's Operation Gold program, which is available only to athletes ranked in the top six of their sport in the world. Those subsidies do not exceed $7,000 and cover only a fraction of athletes' expenses.

McGowan remembered the days when his business was going under. He confessed his problems to Thomas and, McGowan said, she perked up. "She said Donald Trump would help me," he recalled. The champion skater had met the billionaire developer and casino owner when she skated at the opening of the Wollman Rink in New York City, which Trump had built. She said Trump had told her then to call if she ever needed help.

McGowan said he did call Trump and told him, "I need a loan of about $300,000 on a second mortgage to buy my partners out." A secretary called back later to report, "'I'm sorry but he {Trump} does not want to get involved.' That was the quote.

"I think," McGowan said, "a man like him shouldn't make offers to young girls and not follow through."