Athletics: The doping legacy
20 August 2009
In the wake of re-unification, Germany inherited a stable of East German champions, who had not only broken records in track and field but also in the consumption of steroids. Twenty years later, German sport is only now beginning to recover.
Katrin Krabbe was destined for glory in the 1992 Olympics. A top quality sprinter from the East German (GDR) assembly line, she had already won a gold medal for the 200 metres in the 1988 World Junior Championships. When the Berlin Wall came down, West Germans were eager to adopt her as their own, and she became a star throughout the reunified country. But then one day, there was a problem with a urine sample – and a short time later, she failed the test for a banned substance, which signaled her downfall.
The story of Katrin Krabbe is many ways emblematic of the reunification of German sports. It was hoped that the merging of the sports systems would play a special role in the process of reunification, because, it was virtually the only area where East Germany had a lead on its western neighbour. On paper, the East German athletics training programme was one of the best in the world, with 102 medals in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, as opposed to the mere 40 medals won by the much larger West Germany. The prospect of reunification triggered euphoria on both sides. The East Germans were proud of their elite athletes, and the Westerners were looking forward to cheering on a slew of new champions.
But these dreams of glory quickly ran aground on revelations about the sinister reality of East German sports – which highlighted the involvement of some athletes and trainers in the Stasi [East German secret police], and a systematic doping campaign organized by the state. Today, the world of German sports is still struggling to overcome this East German legacy – with the victims of state-sanctioned doping fighting a court battle to obtain compensation, while some of their former coaches are still involved in the training of a present-day generation of athletes. Shortly before the start of the World Championships in Athletics, which is currently being staged in Berlin, there was a rush to officially exonerate five trainers with a history of involvement with doping.
Female athletes develop "mannish traits"
However, official exoneration can do little to change the impact that doping had on the lives of some athletes. Heidi Krieger, who won the gold medal for shot put in the 1986 Stuttgart European Championships in Athletics is a case in point. Today, she has changed her name to Andreas. Having been force-fed steroids in her teens Krieger, who is one of 193 officially acknowledged doping victims, developed so many mannish traits that she eventually felt she had no option but to undergo sex reassignment surgery. In giving evidence about her experience, she emphasized the role of coaches: "The East German trainers and sports doctors felt they could play God." One of the key people that enabled them to do that was Dr Manfred Höppner. Now officially retired, Höppner does all he can to avoid attention from the media, the public, and the possibility of a chance encounter with Heidi Krieger. As vice-director of the East German sports medicine service, he was one of the architects of the doping system in the GDR, which distributed performance enhancing hormones, in particular the infamous blue Oral Turinabol pills, to approximately 100,000 athletes between 1974 and 1989.
In the course of 11 Olympics, East German athletes won 519 medals, 192 of which were gold. At the height of their reign, the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity party (SED), Walter Ulbricht, referred to them as our "diplomats in tracksuits," but "soldiers in sportswear" would have been a more appropriate description. Around 8,000 trainers, who benefited from annual spending of 400 million marks in 1989, worked tirelessly to obtain super-human performances from this elite division. Part of the generous sports budget was earmarked for "State Plan 14.25", which was the code name for a secret cross-disciplinary program to develop new and more efficient doping techniques that brought together coaches and scientists from a variety to fields.
The sinister truth slowly emerges
When the Wall came down on 9 November, 1989, hardly anyone was aware of the sinister side of East German sports. Reunification brought with it a need to combine two competing sports administrations: the East German performance-oriented system, and West Germany's more leisure-oriented system. Notwithstanding the fact that both organizations had radically different approaches, the merger went ahead quickly and with a minimum of fuss. Former chancellor Helmut Kohl announced that he was in favour "of maintaining a high level" of sport in the ex-GDR, but while Bonn [which was the German capital of the time] dreamed of becoming a new sporting superpower, in Berlin the race was on between those who wished to establish the truth and the East German sports medicine service, which vainly attempted to cover up evidence of the widespread distribution of anabolic steroids.
Unification also led to the gradual dissolution of a hard line on doping. In the aftermath of the fall of the Wall, sporting associations were faced with a choice between two policies – to let sleeping dogs lie, or to prosecute those responsible. In 1991, the main committee of the German sports federation (DSB) recommended the dismissal of all coaches, who "could not provide proof of their non-participation in organized doping" in the former GDR. But who was to take charge of checking up on trainers? The DSB had no real interest in pursuing the matter. Nor did the bodies for individual sports, who were pleased to take advantage of qualified personnel from the East. As for the state, it simply opted to leave the clean-up to responsible organizations in the world of sports. As a result, coaches who had been incriminated were allowed to hold down jobs in a wide variety of swimming, skiing and athletics clubs. The question of secret police involvement was also an issue. In 1993, it was decided that officials in sports federations and other major figures would have to submit to background checks. One such check revealed that Heike Drechsler, who had won a double gold at the Stuttgart World Championships, which had made her the darling of Germany, had been the Stasi collaborator code-named "Jump." On this basis it was alleged that she had been paid to spy on one of her club partners – a charge that Drechsler has always denied.
The major shift in the popular understanding of history of German sport came with the publication of the book Doping-Dokumente in 1991. At the time, former shot putter Heidi Krieger, who had retired from sports, was living in Berlin, and her life had taken a difficult turn. In particular, she was troubled by "a feeling that she was a man." In the pages of Doping-Dokumente she learned for the first time about the use of Oral Turinabol, the doping system, "Plan 14.25," and the special regimen reserved for the athlete who had been nicknamed "hormone-Heidi." As part of an overall plan to fatten her up, on one occasion, her trainers had fed her twice the amount of testosterone that a man would normally produce over a period of 29 weeks.
The book swept away any certainties about East Germany's sporting prowess: was the success of the GDR simply a lie? In the subsequent court cases that began in 1998, trainers, doctors and scientists were found guilty and given suspended sentences. However, after an initial wave of convictions, the bid to bring the perpetrators of the doping system to justice ran out of steam. Manfred Höppner was given a conditional suspended sentence for complicity in causing bodily harm. The Steiner commission, which was delegated to take charge of the clean-up in 2008, has succeeded in resolving a large number of problems. For example, it has exonerated heptathlon coach Klaus Baarck for his role in doping in the GDR. Baarck had submitted a statement to the German Olympic committee claiming that he had never distributed doping products so that he could take part in the Beijing Olympics. Now he has changed his tune and admitted that he was involved in doping, expressed remorse to the Steiner Commission and signed a letter of apology – so that he can be properly forgiven just in time for the World Championships in Berlin.