By Roger Cohen
BERLIN, May 10 — He is a shrunken man these days, his eyes evasive behind glasses. But for more than a quarter-century, Manfred Ewald was little short of a demigod, the undisputed "Sportführer" presiding over Communist East Germany's extra-ordinary gold-medal machine.
That success, out of proportion with what was a country of 17 million people, has brought Ewald, 75, to a Berlin court. He is charged with administering anabolic steroids to 142 female athletes, who were not told what they were taking and have since suffered symptoms ranging from
infertility to a deepening of their voices.
The trial, which began last week, is not the first attempt to judge what the German singer and anti-Communist dissident Wolf Biermann once called "a
large-scale animal experiment on living people." But it is the first time that the question of the overall political responsibility for a human experiment
that produced 160 gold medals as it severely damaged the bodies of young athletes has come before a court.
Ewald was, over a period of 26 years, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the man with the political responsibility to produce the Olympic and other medals that would burnish Communism's image in the world. His title was anodyne –President of the East German Gymnastic and Sport Association — but his power enormous.
The indictment — prepared over the past three years by
Klaus-Heinrich Debes, a state prosecutor — chronicling how, from 1974, Ewald pursued a program of doping with what the testimony of one Leipzig doctor,
Lothar Pickenhain, called "an unbelievable brutality and a merciless heart."
Up to now, during three sessions of the trial, Ewald has declined to testify, and his lawyers have argued that his psychological state is now too fragile for him to appear in court. But he has in the past been robust in his dismissal of the accusations and is well-known for a blunt, if not quite relevant and plainly questionable,assertion: "Communists do not murder people."
The trial will resume next week after Ewald undergoes
psychological tests at a Berlin hospital. Already, his co-defendant, Manfred Höppner, 66, a doctor who headed the so-called "Working Group on Supporting Means," has been more forthcoming. "Supporting Means" was the
official East German euphemism for doping.
"I do not deny that I promoted the application of supporting drugs," Höppner said in a prepared statement. But he added, "The promotion and medical support of competitive sport did not contradict the
laws of East Germany."
The courts of a united Germany have tended to show little sympathy for such pleadings: the exaltation of obedience and duty over conscience and humanity has already brought too much ruin on this country during
its modern history.
Certainly, it seems clear that, far from being against the law, the doping for which Ewald was politically responsible was actively supported by the state. The indictment describes how some 30,000 people worked
under him and how scarce hard currency was made available to support the program. For example, he was given $159,000 in 1976 to secure a retreat at the
Montreal Olympics that was deemed remote enough to lessen the chances of doping checks.
"I am absolutely sure that as far as the majority of athletes was concerned, the proper use of supporting drugs proved worthwhile," Höppner argued in court. "As for the athletes who suffered disastrous consequences, I ask them to accept my apology."
But there was little hint of charity from those whose lives were permanently changed. Of the 142 women named, 40 developed deeper voices, 21 suffered an excessive growth of bodily hair, 15 incurred
gynecological problems including infertility or miscarriages, six saw their breasts disappear, and others suffered symptoms including the development of outsized muscles.
"We were vehicles chosen to prove that socialism was better than capitalism," said Carola Beraktschjan, 38, a former gold medalist in the 1977 European swimming championships. "What happened to our bodies was entirely secondary to that political mission led by Ewald."
One of the 142 people named in the case, Beraktschjan recalled how she was 13 years old when officials started giving her pills in 1975 that were described as "vitamins" and "minerals." Her first suspicion arose a year later, just before the Montreal Olympics, when she became ill with a liver complaint. But the following year, she agreed to injections of further "vitamins" and "minerals."
"We were very young," she said, "and you have to understand how helpless we felt."
At the age of 15, the program bore fruit when she secured her European title in the 100-meter breast-stroke — a medal she has since returned because she can no longer accept how it was won.
In 1978, as her muscles suddenly swelled and she began to rapidly put on weight, Beraktschjan rebelled and refused to take any more of the substances. She now credits this decision with saving her from the more
extreme problems suffered by other women.
She has a healthy 13-year-old daughter. Until recently, however, Beraktschjan had recurrent nightmares bout swimming, usually about drowning or being unable to reach the side of the pool. "They were dreams of fear, the fear I carried in me then," she
The dreams stopped two years ago after she sought psychological help and witnessed the trial of her former swimming coach, Rolf Gleser, who was fined and given a suspended sentence.
"Now, when I see Mr. Ewald, I feel anger," she said. "But it's not the same direct anger as with my trainer. It's subtler than that, a satisfaction that the mastermind of it all will at last get his due."
Just what, if anything, that due will be remains unclear for now. Sentences in previous doping trials have been light with a 15-month suspended jail
sentence among the most severe punishments. But the prosecution is arguing that the responsibility of the
"Sportfürher" for medal production is of a different nature from men like Gleser.
A verdict is expected later this month.