World

East Germany’s Steroid Shame

Christiane Knacke-Sommer
06/13/14
In the Magazine
Former East German swimmer Christiane Knacke-Sommer tries to cover the lens of a photographer as she arrives at the Berlin-Moabit court as first witness for the doping trial April 20, 1998. She confirmed that she had been given steroids from her coach. Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

At home in Berlin, Uwe Trömer is wearing a T-shirt saying “Ich bin der böse Radfahrer” — “I’m the mean cyclist.” The 53-year-old is indeed a cyclist, a former top one at that. But these days he’s an angry man. Trömer’s body is in ruins, the result of doping ordered by his coaches and doctors in what was then East Germany.

“Starting at age 15, I got the blue pill but also a bunch of other substances,” explains the team pursuit specialist, who is now forced to live on disability benefits. “And before competitions, we got injections every day. Within two-three hours, you could feel your body getting warmer. But the coaches didn’t tell us what it was that we were getting. They called it ‘supporting substances.’”

When East Germany collapsed, the young athletes quickly learned what those supporting substances were: anabolic steroids. The omnipresent blue pill, officially known as Oral Turinabol, was manufactured by the government-run drugmaker VEB Jenapharm. Among its well-known side effects among women were deeper voices, facial hair, small breasts, sterility. Among men: impotence and prostate-related illnesses. “Experience shows that young girls develop a masculine appearance and that it doesn’t fade away when one stops taking the substance,” says Kurt Franke, a leading sports physician doubling as a Stasi (security police) informant, in a report seen by Newsweek. Even so, trainers and doctors kept giving their young charges the pill, as well as other steroids.

The supporting substances got results. During its short existence, East Germany – officially known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – was arguably the world’s most impressive sports nation. Between 1964 and 1988, this country of less than 17 million citizens won 454 medals on the summer Olympics alone. In Stasi records, coaches and doctors credit doping; it was an integral part of the country’s extremely well organised training system. Children were talent spotted at primary-school age by government-paid coaches and then sent for intensive training at local clubs. If successful, they were accepted to state-run elite sports boarding schools aged 13 or even younger.

It was in these schools that the emerging athletes were unknowingly fed anabolic steroids, usually starting at age 14. “The trainers called our parents in for a meeting and told them that if their children told them they were getting pills, it was nothing to worry about,” says swimmer Ute Krieger-Krause at her home in Magdeburg, some 80 miles south-west of Berlin, where she attended the swimming school. “They told the parents, ‘It’s just vitamins that the children need because we don’t have enough fresh fruit in the GDR’.” Like her fellow swimmers, Krieger-Krause had to collect her daily collection of pills from her coach and eat them in his presence. Refusing, she recalls, brought a penalty of another swimming round or 40 pushups.

“West Germany doped just as much, but it wasn’t done as systematically as in East Germany,” explains Perikles Simon, professor of sports medicine at the University of Mainz and one of the world’s leading doping experts. “In West Germany it was basically done by individual clubs, and athletes could decide to participate or not. And West Germany used so-called good anabolics that you inject into the blood, whereas East Germany used the oral blue pill, which has much worse side effects.” Germany’s anti-doping legislation remains surprisingly liberal, with only “non-small amounts” of doping substances banned, though the government plans to propose stricter laws.

Like Trömer, Krause quickly developed remarkable muscle and stamina, soon becoming her country’s fourth-ranked swimmer in the backstroke. And with every promising teen housed in the same boarding school, and taking the pills in their coaches’ presence, the young athletes didn’t question the regime. The only reaction, Krieger-Krause explains, came from her aunt as they saw each other after a couple of years’ absence. “What a deep voice you’ve got!” exclaimed her auntie.

As Franke knew, the substances cause permanent damage as well. According to the Doping-Opfer-Hilfe association for doping victims, 90 percent of the athletes recognised as doping victims have serious health issues. One former weightlifter says that, due to a daily regime of hospital visits to treat diabetes and other ailments, he can no longer leave his home even for a day. The sad fact of doping is that even with illegal substances in their bodies, most athletes won’t win an Olympic medal. Krieger-Krause, for example, acknowledges that she was no major star.

Several coaches and doctors have been convicted of causing bodily harm but were only fined or given suspended prison sentences. Yet their former teenage protégés are suffering from chronic ailments. Krieger-Krause, forced to end her career prematurely due to severe depression and anorexia, also suffers from worn-out joints and a permanently damaged spine. The former swimmer is in her fifties. Trömer, who suffered kidney failure as an athlete, suffers from chronic pain, has had several heart attacks and six years ago suffered a stroke as well. At least three athletes have died prematurely, as has a female West German athlete.

But few have suffered more shocking consequences than Andreas Krieger, Krieger-Krause’s now-husband. As Heidi Krieger, he was one of Europe’s top female shot-putters, winning gold at the 1986 European Championships. At his and Krause’s lovingly decorated home, where their wedding photo features prominently in the living room, he shows a photo of himself aged 15: a tall, slender girl with an infectious smile. Then a photo of himself aged 17: now with a muscular neck, broader face and massive shoulders. “The coaches pretended to be concerned about our health,” he recalls. “For every pill there was a logical explanation.”

Several years after retiring in 1991, the masculine Heidi underwent a sex change operation to become Andreas. He shows photos from his female youth while speaking calmly about the daily drug regimen. Yet the all-male-looking former star is condemned to a life of daily reminders about what East German doctors did to him: in order to remain a man, he has to take male steroids for the rest of his life. “My back is shot, and I have problems with my hips, legs and joints,” he reports.

In reports to his Stasi handlers, Bernd Pansold, a doctor at Andreas’s club, listed the side effects among the young athletes in his care even as he kept feeding them new substances. Pansold is now enjoying a second career at Red Bull’s centre in Austria, where top athletes including the downhill champion Lindsey Vonn train.

Krieger’s story is well-known, as is the extent of East Germany’s doping, which is estimated to have included up to 10,000 athletes. But there is mounting evidence of the health toll the doping is taking on its victims. “I’m so sorry, but there’s another crisis,” says Ines Geipel as she hurriedly arrives at a Berlin café for our interview. The former sprinting world record holder – Geipel’s 100 metre relay team set the club record in 1984 – is now a professor at Berlin’s Academy of Dramatic Art. She also volunteers her time assisting fellow doping victims. “We’re getting more and more of these calls,” she explains. “Depression especially is coming up more and more often.”

Doping victims who registered as such before 2004 receive a modest one-time compensation, of up to €10,000. (According to Germany’s Interior Ministry, 193 athletes have received compensation.) Last year a court decided that an East German rower suffering from cancer could claim the same victim’s pension as crime victims. Geipel is herself living with the consequences of the blue pill: a deep voice and small breasts, as she notes.

Among the ex-athletes’ other common ailments: heart attacks, heart enlargements, malfunction of lungs and kidneys, deformed ovaries and skeletal illnesses. A generation of East German athletes form a unique case study on the life-long effects of doping.  

But, says Simon, not even this catalogue of horror stories will convince athletes to go clean. “It’s like smoking,” he argues. “The only thing that works is a complete ban and making it uncool. For athletes, the most important questions is not, ‘What will my health be like in 20 years’ time?’ but ‘What is my body capable of doing?’ For most athletes, doing sport without doping is no fun because all of a sudden your body isn’t doing the things it used to do.”

Doping is, of course, banned, but outside observers allege the practice remains widespread. A spokeswoman for DAPA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, says the agency “is aware that the prevalence of doping is high.” Reflects Geipel: “Large-scale doping didn’t end with the East Germany. Instead, we’re seeing an East Germany-isation of world sport.”

Professor Simon estimates that 60 percent of today’s athletes are doped. “East and West Germany got away with doping because the dopers were also the doping controllers,” he explains. “They developed the tests, then told one another about it, and that’s the way it still works. They tell the athletes how long the doping will show up in tests, so athletes know when to stop using the substances. The difference today is that with doping being more sophisticated, it requires much more cooperation from the athlete.” International Olympic Committee spokesman Andrew Mitchell calls Simon’s estimate “just an opinion” and adds that the IOC has “long held a zero-tolerance attitude towards doping in sport and to suggest otherwise would be to ignore the facts.”

The only way of ending doping, argues Krieger, is to erase all sporting records tainted by doping. To that end, he has written to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) asking for his own European youth record to be deleted. Some East German athletes go further, arguing there needs to be a “zero hour”, when all world records are erased, as previous doped records will otherwise put new athletes in an untenable situation. But IAAF deputy PR director Chris Evans says that president Lamine Diack won’t change the athletics [track & field] world record list.

Perhaps surprisingly for an athlete who collapsed during a training run and proceeded to urinate a black-coloured liquid only to be told by the team doctor that he had the flu, Trömer saves his rage for officials. “The sponsors and athletic bodies only want to see world records,” the “mean cyclist” alleges. “Athletes are perpetrators and victims alike. Look at what the cyclists in the Tour de France have to do. Sure, athletes make a bunch of money, but their managers benefit from them.” The Union Cycliste Internationale did not respond to a request for comment. Whenever he meets young athletes, Trömer pleads with them to stand up for themselves, to get angry. “Sports is being abused for sponsorship deals,” he fumes.

Krieger, who used to throw a metal ball farther than any other European woman, hasn’t touched one since retiring. Instead, he spends his free time speaking about doping to local school classes. “I want to give something back to sport,” he says. “It can’t heal itself.”

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