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GDR's doping legacy

Interview: André LeslieNovember 6, 2014

Support for East German athletes who doped during their athletic careers is still minimal, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. DW spoke to Ines Geipel, a former GDR athlete who wants sport and politics to act.

Ines Geipel
Image: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

DW: You were an athlete in East Germany, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Could you take us back in time a little bit and tell us why there was so much pressure to dope back then, in the GDR?

Ines Geipel: East Germany was a small, closed-off country with a dictatorship and by the start of the 1970s it was recognized internationally. In 1974, the government derived a national plan where they decided that all athletes in elite sports squads would be given male sexual hormones. That means kids from eight years of age, right up into the national teams. That was around 15,000 people, none of whom had an alternative. You couldn't say, "I'm not going to do it."

Otherwise, you would have been excluded, I presume.

That's right. The problem with this GDR system was that you were not told that they were highly aggressive substances that you were taking, that you will get cancer later on if you take it. Instead the athletes were told "You are training a lot, you need to take these vitamins. It will help you recover quicker." It was all hidden. The athletes were not told what was going on, there was no informed consent. That is the story behind political doping in the GDR.

Could you give us some examples of the health problems that these former athletes are still suffering at the moment?

We are talking about serious organ damage, especially heart, lungs and liver. There are also cases of disabled children and many cancer illnesses, fat metabolism disorders and so on. Because of the steroids they took, they could train a lot more and for that reason the wear and tear on the body was much worse. We have cases of damaged backs, arthritis and damaged joints. But the saddest thing is the list of deaths continues to grow. These athletes are just dying. Recently, a former weightlifter Gerd Bonk, who was once celebrated as a hero, as the strongest man in the world, died due to multiple organ failure.

There were compensation payments made to some athletes, but it wasn't a lot of money. Why – still 25 years after the Berlin Wall came down – has nothing more been done?

No-one takes responsibility - not in politics and not in the world of sports – for the fact that sport has a legacy after the lights and cameras go off. These athletes are still suffering but they are left to deal with the problem by themselves and they can't cope with it. If you look at the GDR's former athletes today, 80 percent of them now live on social welfare. They can't pay for the medicine or therapy they need. They are also trying to get information on their past. As an organization we put in requests at the Stasi records office and other archives, so they can find out what was done to them. The culprits, doctors, coaches from back then are not saying anything. It's just a difficult situation.

Ines Geipel with her SC Motor Jena track team
Ines Geipel (far right) with her Jena teammates after breaking the 4 x 100 meter GDR relay recordImage: imago/ND-Archiv

What are you trying to fight for now? What can be achieved for these athletes?

We have been trying for some time, in combination with representatives in political circles, to get these former athletes and victims a proper pension. In conjunction with sports organizations we are trying to fundraise too. We want to build two specialized clinics with doctors on hand who are experts on the chemicals used and the health problems that arose. That's where the need is. So many of the people we are talking about have multiple illnesses, affecting their mental state and their inner organs for instance. You really need to have doctors who are experts.

Has modern Germany learnt from the doping it conducted in the past?

There certainly isn't anything like forced doping these days and the intrusion in the private lives of people, as was the case in the GDR. But I don't think we have learnt enough. We still don't have any other view of sport. It's always about efficiency. I notice the squad systems, the elite sports schools. That is a type of "GDR-ification" of German sport.

We always want to be world champions, no matter what the cost. It's okay to want to be world champion, but if you want to do it "no matter what the cost" then it is a dangerous game. Sport has changed. In sport these days, as a young man, you can earn good money. You become a national product, people love you and you are a celebrity. But the athletes often don't know the risks they are exposing themselves to. The system is very strong, and there are many vested interests. When we tell this story of what happened in the former East Germany, we are also trying to educate people involved in sport today.

Ines Geipel is the chairperson of the Berlin-based "Doping victims support group" (In German: Doping-Opfer-Hilfeverein). Geipel was part of the women's SC Motor Jena athletics team in 1984 that broke the East German 4 x 100 relay record. She has since asked for the record to be removed, because she says it came about through doping.