Story by Jim Ferstle:
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, so did the cloak of secrecy surrounding the “sports machine” produced by the former East Germany (GDR). While many of the extensive records kept by the GDR’s sports functionaries and secret police were destroyed, a large number survived. And from these records, German molecular biologist Werner Franke and his wife, former German Olympic shot-putter Brigitte Berendonk, have reconstructed a chilling view of how a totalitarian society used drugs to promote sports success.
This week, Franke and Berendonk spoke at the British Sports Council in London and used the occasion to decry the recent lowering of the IAAF drug sanctions from four to two years. Taking an even more controversial position, they also called for disqualification of GDR Olympic medalists now known to have taken performance enhancing drugs, and for elimination from the world record lists of marks set by the same GDR athletes.
Proof of GDR doping practices has been published by the couple in the book “Doping,” available only in German, and in a recent article in the journal “Clinical Chemistry.” The article recounts how athletes were used as human “guinea pigs” for GDR experiments intended to enhance performance by pharmaceutical means. The couple obtained GDR records that record the names of at least 230 GDR track and field athletes who were listed as receiving regular doses of anabolic steroids.
The list reads like a “who’s who” of GDR Olympic medalists. The studies done by GDR scientists most clearly document the effect of anabolic steroids on women. The “androgenization” of these athletes was sometimes begun when they were in their early teens, and the effect of the drug use was dramatic. Throwers improved by up to several meters. Sprinters’ times dropped dramatically, and significant performance increases were documented in women competing in races up to 1500 meters.
Perhaps most significant and troubling, however, is the following finding: “After a critical period of androgenization and an increase in muscle strength, a higher performance level is reached that does not return to pretreatment values after the drug is withdrawn.” In other words, once an athlete takes steroids, he or she retains some benefit even after going off the drugs.
The GDR scientists were not content to use only those drugs available in the marketplace; they also did research to develop their own “designer steroids” that would maximize performance gains while helping athletes avoid detection. In addition, before leaving for any big meets, athletes were pre-tested in Germany to make sure they would not produce a positive sample at the competition. When possible, GDR sports authorities, who also held powerful positions within the IOC and IAAF, were even able to destroy or alter the urine samples given by GDR athletes to prevent a positive test. The T/E ratio wasparticularly targeted by GDR scientists, as testosterone administration was deemed to be an effective way of continuing the effects of synthetic anabolic steroids prior to a competition.
When the IOC and IAAF stepped up testing programs for steroids, the GDR moved its athletes to testosterone, particularly in the period just before major competitions. When the sports organizations began testing for T/E ratios, GDR medical experts simply developed epitestosterone injections that would keep their athletes within the legal ratio.
The GDR documents also reveal the harmful side effects of drug use. GDR deputy director and chief physician for the doping program, Manfred Hoppner warned that the drugs had to be carefully controlled to avoid damaging the athletes’ health. The documents show that athletes and coaches, eager to succeed in a society were sports provided one of the few avenues to an improved life, often drifted to the black market for more and newer and supposedly stronger drugs. Thus, despite the GDR’s attempts to maintain tight controls over drugs in sports, the doping system they created and fostered often spun out of control.
Berendonk has been attempting to call attention to the doping problem in sport since 1968. Franke’s work with German scientific authorities has strengthened the couple’s case and their resolve to make the abuses public. They believe that history ignored is destined to repeat itself, and that they must do their best to make sure no one can ignore the history of drug use in the GDR.