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GDR sports doping casts long shadow

Kyle James
October 1, 2010

The sports doping program carried out by the former East Germany has been history for decades. But for many athletes of the era, the scars — both physical and mental — have not gone away.

GDR flag and syringe
Many GDR athletes were given performance-enhancing drugsImage: picture-alliance / dpa / DW Montage

Berlin resident Birgit Boese can get to work and back home every day, but that's about all she can manage. The 48-year-old former athlete depends on crutches to get around, and she and her husband have to forego visits together to the theater, movies or local swimming pool.

"Because of the pain, we can't really take part in public life," she said.

Once groomed to compete in the shot put and compete against the world's top athletes, today she says she suffers from an irregular heartbeat, high-blood pressure, diabetes, nerve damage, kidney problems, and a list of other ailments that have made her all but an invalid.

She says she knows what is to blame for her poor health - little blue pills she was given by her coaches at a special sports school in the German Democratic Republic starting at age 11.

former shot-putter Birgit Boese
Boese wants the government to make it easier for doping victims to get state aidImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

She was told they were vitamins; now she knows they were anabolic steroids, meant to increase her muscle mass, strengthen her endurance and put her on in the center of the winners' podium at the Olympics, gold around her neck.

She and 183 other former athletes who were victims of communist East Germany's notorious doping program, many of whom still suffer from the long-term effects of the drugs, were awarded compensation in 2006 from the German Olympic Sports Organization (DOSB) and the drug company Jenapharm.

Each received 9,250 euros ($12,200) from the pharmaceutical company in an out-of-court settlement and 170 of the plaintiffs were paid another 9,250 euros from the DOSB.

"It helped, sure," she said. "But for those with chronic illnesses and who have to pay out of pocket for medications, the money didn't go that far."

Massive scale

It is estimated that some 9,000 former athletes, perhaps more, were doped in a program that ran for decades up until 1989 with approval from the highest levels of the East German government.

Many, like Boese, were given the pills as minors. Estimates are that two million tablets of performance enhancing drugs, mostly anabolic steroids, were given out each year to athletes. Many later developed cancer, ovarian cysts, liver damage, heart disease, infertility and other ailments. Some had children with health problems, such as blindness or club feet.

"Certainly people were not aware of the long-term effects of the drug use and, in my opinion, dramatically underestimated them," Wilhelm Schaenzer, head of the Institute for Biochemistry at the German Sports University in Cologne, told Deutsche Welle.

Heidi Krieger at the European championships in 1986
Heidi Krieger at the European championships in 1986Image: dpa

What was not underestimated was the zeal in which the communist East German government pursued its goal of winning gold medals at the Olympics and other sporting events. It was seen as a way to show that its ideological system was superior, not only politically, but in the sporting arena as well.

"There was always a rationale behind the madness," Steven Ungerleider, a sports psychologist and author of a book on East Germany's doping program called "Faust's Gold," said. Coaches, trainers and parents would watch as their young daughters suddenly exhibited unusual amounts of body hair, bulked up rapidly, and developed deep voices.

"There was a sick joke running around that when women Olympic swimmers would go into the changing room and see East German girls there, they'd say, 'oh my God, we must be in the men's locker room.'"

Medal factory

Despite the near cartoonish appearance of some of their athletes, the doping program delivered results. From 1972 to 1988, the country of 17 million won 384 Olympic medals, not including the 1984 Los Angeles Games, which they boycotted. They always placed well ahead of the much larger West Germany.

The human cost of those victories is still being felt today.

Probably the best-known case is that of Andreas Krieger, who competed as Heidi Krieger for East Germany and was European shot put champion in 1986. Krieger was systematically doped and her body underwent dramatic changes.

Andreas Krieger, formerly Heidi, on his way to testify at a 2000 doping trial
Andreas Krieger, formerly Heidi, on his way to testify at a 2000 doping trialImage: AP

In 1997, Heidi underwent a sex change and now lives as a man. He is still struggling with the aftereffects - both physical and mental - of the doping, which was done without her knowledge.

Barbara Boese says over the years she has had contact with some 600 former athletes; she used to run a counseling drop-in center for them. For many of them, she says, their health has gotten worse over the years.

Justice served?

Manfred Hoeppner, the GDR's top sports doctor, and Manfred Ewald, a former East German sports minister, are considered the primary architects of the country's doping program. They were convicted in court on charges of being accessories to intentional bodily harm of athletes, including minors. Both received probation.

Also in 2000, Lothar Kipke, a former senior consultant to the East German swimming association, was fined several thousand euros and given a 15-month suspended jail sentence.

And last year, five former GDR coaches, all of whom currently coach Germany's top track-and-field stars, confessed to having participating in the doping program to enhance athletes' performances.

All members of the group, including long-jump coach Rainer Pottel, discus coach Gerhard Boettcher, javelin coach Maria Ritschel, shot-put coach Klaus Schneider and heptathlon coach Klaus Baarck, have been told they can keep their jobs.

"Some former athletes have come to peace with what happened," Boese said. "But when they see their former coaches at sporting events sitting there, then many of them become very bitter, even furious."

Lesson learned?

Doping is still a problem in many sports today, although observers say it is unlikely it is practiced on such a scale as in the former East Germany. Testing procedures have become much more rigorous over the past 20 years and sanctions for those caught cheating have become more severe.

taking a blood sample
Testing controls have gotten more rigorous and have had a deterrent effectImage: AP

"Today we know that the use of such substances by athletes or even recreational athletes has very serious consequences," said Schaenzer. "Even though, of course, abuse continues."

That is something that Birgit Boese has a hard time understanding, since she lives every day with the effects of doping. When she sees a news report about another athlete caught using performance-enhancing drugs, she usually just shakes her head.

"I think, the poor fool," she said. "Today athletes can decide to keep away from the drugs before they ruin their health. But maybe the lure of becoming rich and famous is so great that all reason just flies out the window."

Author: Kyle James
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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