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The Quest for Gold Left Lives in Ruins

Kyle James, DW-WORLD.DEJune 29, 2005

More than 160 athletes from the former East Germany are demanding compensation for the effects of performance-enhancing drugs they were made to take, often as children. The drugs have scarred or even ruined their lives.

The priority in East Germany was gold, not the athletes themselvesImage: dpa

Sporting success in the former East Germany was seen as much more than just a boost to national pride. Victory on the playing field was highly political. Medals and trophies gathered through sports were meant to demonstrate that the socialist system had better athletes, better training programs and better coaches – all in all, that it was simply better.

But tell that to Birgit Boese (photo), who is living proof of the terrible consequences of the German Democratic Republic's (GDR) quest to achieve athletic glory at any cost. At 43 years of age, the 6' 3" (190 cm) woman has to use a cane to get around her Berlin apartment.

Die ehemalige DDR-Kugelstoßerin Birgit Böse
Birgit BoeseImage: dpa

She cannot drive or use public transportation, since any kind of stress drives her blood pressure up to dangerous levels. She has to take morphine two to three times daily due to chronic back pain, as well as insulin injections for her diabetes. Her liver and kidneys do not function properly. She has asthma.

"Once a doctor told me, Ms. Boese, if you were a car and came in for inspection, I'd write off the car as totaled and send it to the junkyard," she said.

Olympian under construction

But Boese's poor health isn't congenital. In fact, at the age of ten, she began to be groomed to become an Olympic champion for her country, East Germany. Her sport was the shot put; her training regimen at a special sports school, ten hours a day, six days a week. Every few days, starting when she was 11 years old, she and the other young athletes at the school were given blue pills they had to take. At first, she and the others asked what they were.

"'Don't ask, just take it' was the answer," she said. "Later on, they said they were vitamins and minerals that we needed so we wouldn't get sick from all the hard training."

Soon thereafter, however, she started noticing physical changes. Her voice got deeper and deeper, until when she answered the phone at home, relatives thought she was her brother. Unusual amounts of body hair began to grow and she put on muscle mass and height.

X. Weltfestspiele der Jugend in Ost-Berlin, 1973
Opening of the 10th World Youth Games in East Berlin, 1973Image: dpa

Boese was experiencing what an estimated 10,000 athletes in the GDR did -- the effects of performance-enhancing drugs on their bodies.

These "supporting means," as the East German language of bureaucracy and obfuscation termed the drugs, were produced by the pharmaceutical company Jenapharm, headquartered in the town on Jena.

Legal action

But now some of these athletes, who like Boese suffer from a variety of medical ailments resulting from the doping, are demanding compensation. Several lawyers are planning lawsuits on behalf of more than 160 former athletes. They are scheduled to begin this summer against the drug company, which is still in operation but is a subsidiary of drug giant Schering.

"We know at the moment that the East German government wanted to show that the GDR system was better through sports, and they thought to themselves, 'how can we have better athletes?'" said Sven Leistikow, a lawyer representing 16 former athletes. "Doping was the answer they came up with and we think Jenapharm was a key player in this system."

Jena (Thüringen): Firmenzentrale der Jenapharm GmbH in Jena, aufgenommen am 23.08.2002.
Jenapharm Headquarters in Jena, GermanyImage: dpa

Lawyer Michael Lehner is planning a lawsuit against Jenapharm for 3.2 million euros ($5.83 million) on behalf of 160 doping victims. He hopes to force the company to pay around 20,000 euros ($24,000) per plaintiff and to cover their future medical costs. Former athletes often face high medical expenses to pay for medicines they need for pain relief or chronic diseases they have developed. Many have limited incomes because their medical conditions prevent them from holding down a job.

Who's responsible?

The drug often given to athletes was Oral-Turinabol, a steroid Jenapharm produced that was approved for some illness, but not meant for use on athletes for performance enhancement. Thus far, Jenapharm has refused to discuss out-of-court settlements with the athletes. The company has said it is not itself culpable, since the drug was legal in the GDR but misused by sports physicians and trainers.

"I do understand the doping victims' demand for compensation," Jenapharm General Manager Isabel Rothe said in a statement to DW-WORLD. But said she added that claims against Jenapharm are "not justified."

"What we consider to be most important is to identify those who were really responsible for the national GDR doping programme. These were on the one hand the heads of the Socialist Party and the government…and on the other hand the sports physicians and trainers who used the doping substances on the athletes," the statement said.

But lawyers say files from the East German secret police, the Stasi, show that Jenapharm officials sat down on several occasions with government officials and trainers to discuss the doping program. They also say the files show Jenapharm passed on other, non-approved substances to trainers and withheld information about the side effects, which broke the law.

Image: Bilderbox

"If you are a drug producer, then you have to say no," said attorney Leistikow when responding to those who say the GDR was a totalitarian system and any company there was forced to do what the government decreed. "They might have put pressure on people but I think there was no fear, no real danger for the managers of Jenapharm if they didn't go along. Maybe there was a danger that they could lose their jobs, but that's all."

This month, Jenapharm announced it will provide 250,000 euros to fund a research team to investigate its own role in the GDR doping system. Critics call it another delaying tactic.

Cost of success

While the Olympic medal count for East Germany was high -- from 1972 to 1988, the GDR won 384 medals -- the human cost of those aspirations has turned out to be much higher. The two million tablets given out per year during the 70s and 80s have wreaked physical and metal havoc on hundreds, if not thousands of lives.

Some cases have been fatal, such as that of athlete George Severs, who was found at the bottom of a swimming pool having suffered heart failure. His parents were told by GDR officials he drowned because the flu had made it weak. Two decades later it was revealed he died due to liver damage from the drugs.

Andreas Krieger, der eine Geschlechtsumwandlung hinter sich hat, steht am Dienstag (02.05.2000) in den Gängen des Gerichtsgebäudes Berlin-Moabit und wartet auf den Beginn des Doping-Prozesses.
Andreas Krieger, formerly Heidi Krieger, champion GDR shot putter and doping victimImage: dpa

Heidi Krieger, who was the European women's champion shot putter in 1986, was given Oral-Turinabol, which gave her masculine physical characteristics and heightened her confusion about an already uncertain sexual identity. In 1997, she underwent a sex-change operation, becoming Andreas. He now makes a living selling surplus US Army clothing from a shop in Magdeburg.

Many of the affected athletes feel justice has yet to be served. While more than 300 former East German sporting officials have been convicted of doping offenses since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, those sentenced faced only fines and suspended jail sentences. No one implicated has spent a day in jail.

For Birgit Boese, the issue with Jenapharm is not only one of justice, it's also important to make the current lives of those impacted a little easier. She doesn't want to get rich, she said, but she wants recognition of the suffering she and others have endured. She also wants the company to own up to its wrongs, even if it was then under pressure from a now-discredited system.

"You hear the expression ‘the ends justify the means,' but not when you're dealing with people," she said. "You can't just go walking over bodies and abusing children to achieve your own political ends. I can't understand that."