Former East German Athletes Sue Drug Companies

By Craig Lord

March 2. VICTIMS of East Germany's state-run doping program are fighting for 3.2 million euros in compensation from the drug company whose steroids fueled the former communist state's Olympic medals factory until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Lawyers representing the doping victims help group (Doping-Opfer-Hilfe) argue that Jenapharm created anabolic substances, such as Oral-Turinabol, with the specific intention of enhancing sporting performance to better represent the German Democratic Republic. Some of the drugs, they claim, were never approved, nor were they tested on animals before being administered to athletes.

Dr. Michael Lehner, one of the two lawyers who will meet Jenapharm representatives at the Board of Arbitration in Hamburg over the next two months in an attempt to settle out of court on behalf of 160 clients, said: "This company was part of the GDR system. They not only produced the pills but they developed substances for the specific purpose of doping athletes. Their representatives were at the meetings when the whole thing was planned."

In a statement Jenapharm acknowledged that the company was obliged, during East German times to "collaborate in the GDR 'Staatsplan 14.25', but that it was not a "driving force behind the national GDR doping program." The blame rested with politicians, sports doctors and coaches. The athletes' claims against Jenapharm were "unfounded".

Among those whose expertise supports the victims' case are Dr. Werner Franke, the Heidelberg cell biologist who first brought to public attention Stasi (secret police) files recording the doping regime by publishing several key files in Swimming World, and Dr. Rainer Hartwich, director of clinical research at VEB Jenapharm in East German times but no longer with the company.

In an interview with a local radio station in Germany, Hartwich said: "The plan at Jenapharm was not to develop the drug (Oral-Turinabol) into a medication for normal use. The interest in it would have been much bigger and we would have had to have published the data and clinical research for the central advisory board of the GDR…that was not desired, in our aim to keep it a secret."

The Stasi (secret police) listed the doping program under the codename "Komplex 08". The files show that Hartwich tested and oversaw the development of the anabolic steroids Oral-Turinabol and "STS 646" in a clinic at Erfurt. He is quoted in Stasi files as saying that "the new drugs will be of immense value to our sport".

However, Hartwich warned the Stasi in 1988 that "illegal" use of steroids had reached alarming levels. He now says: "Jenapharm has a moral duty to support the doping victims".

Among the 160 victims are a number of former Olympic and world champions from various sports, including swimmer Petra Schneider, who defeated Britain's Sharron Davies in the 400 individual medley at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Karin Koenig, a member of the world record holding freestyle relay in 1984, and Jurgen Grundler, world junior biathlon champion in 1976. Many have suffered a catalogue of health problems – some life-threatening – since being among the estimated 10,000 athletes – some as young as 11 – who were given anabolic substances to enhance sporting performance in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Jenapharm – partly owned by Schering, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical firms – is based in the Thuringian town of Jena from which its name is derived. Its plant lies some 60 miles west of Kreischa, the Saxon laboratory then approved by the International Olympic Committee and responsible for testing athletes to ensure that they never tested positive when they left the country for competition. No East German athlete ever failed an official drug test, though Stasi files show that many did indeed produce positive tests at Kreischa.

If Jenapharm does not agree to settle out of court, Dr. Lehner and fellow lawyer Dr. Jen Steinigen, a former winter Olympic biathlon champion for East Germany, are likely to take the cases of "three or four athletes" before a judge in Jena later this year. A victory would force Jenapharm to compensate all 160 victims, with average compensation estimated at about £14,000 per person.

Stasi files held by Dr. Franke demonstrate, according to the victims' lawyers, that certain Jenapharm substances were not only illegal in international sports law but also in state law. "On the one hand they were working for the state to produce Oral-Turinabol, on the other they were creating and distributing drugs such as 'substance 12' and 'STS 646' that were never approved by the state and never tested on animals," Dr. Franke said.

Drs. Lehner and Steinigen will also rely on the court testimony of Dr. Manfred Hoeppner, head of a committee euphemistically named the Working Group on Supporting Means and one of the masterminds of the doping regime. Hoeppner, who received a one-year suspended sentence and fine at his trial in 1998, stated that during meetings between the Ministry for Research and Technology and other state officials of the German Democratic Republic, Jenapharm representatives were present when decisions on doping were made.

Jenapharm may attempt to raise the statute of limitations as a reason why the case should never reach court in Germany: a moratorium for all doping cases to be heard was declared in October 2000. The victims argue that their new case deals with evidence brought to light since that deadline.

Franke hoped for an out-of-court settlement but said: "Jenapharm is not being very cooperative. The problem is one of German law. If you cheat on your taxes, like Steffi Graf's father, you go to jail for three and a half years and pay a very big financial penalty but if someone rips your eye out in the street, you'll be lucky to get 10,000 euros. The integrity of the body is not something of high value in law here. You could expect something very different in the United States, Britain perhaps, and some other countries."

One ray of hope for the group rests, ironically, with a ruling given in the case of the late Manfred Ewald, head of East German sport and prime architect of the doping regime. Though he received what many saw as a lenient 2-year suspended sentence and fine at his trial in 1998, Ewald's testimony prompted judges to rule that administering androgenic hormones to those who did not need them for medical reasons constituted "elevated criminality".

That and the fact that some of the victims live outside Germany and could choose to take their action to local courts in countries such as the United States, where bodily harm can carry much more serious penalties. "Hell will be unleashed if one of the victims living abroad takes action through a foreign court in a place where the claim would be much higher than in Germany," said Dr. Franke.

Isabel Rothe, Jenapharm chief executive officer for Jenapharm since March last year, said: "What is most important…is to discover those who were really responsible for the national GDR doping program." She pointed the finger at the East German Government, who "wanted to demonstrate the abilities of the GDR" through sport, and the "sports physicians and trainers who used the doping substances on their athletes."

However, there was no mention of the man she replaced at the helm of Jenapharm last year: Dr. Dieter Taubert, who headed the company throughout East German times. Taubert was promoted to chief executive of Schering Deutschland GmbH.

Rothe noted that Oral-Turinabol was a legally approved drug. Jenapharm's lawyers were in the process of reviewing Dr. Franke's "extensive" statement before the hearings begin in Hamburg.

The victims' case may be watched closely by a worldwide pharmaceutical industry whose products are used for illicit means by cheats. Some of those cheats may one day suffer serious illness and any legal action could one day involve drug companies having to prove they did everything possible to restrict products designed for medical use out of the reach of those who would take them to enhance sporting performance.

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