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East Germany’s doping legacy lives on, 25 years later

Twenty-five years ago, as a nation officially divided into East and West worked out a plan for how to become simply Germany, Ines Geipel decided to get her name out of the record books.

Geipel – who under her maiden name, Ines Schmidt, had been a member of the formidable East German women’s track team when she helped set a German relay record in 1984 – had started wondering whether the little blue “vitamins” she’d taken as part of her official training regime didn’t taint any glory of being a champion.

The pills, it turned out, were steroids, banned under international competition rules. Geipel asked that her name be removed from the German record books. An asterisk instead of her name now appears.

But the club record, 42.2 seconds in the 4x100 meter relay, still stands, and the name of the club she ran for, SC Motor Jena, and her teammates, Baerbel Woeckel, Ingrid Auerswald and Marlies Goehr (also national team runners, but running for a club in this race), are still listed.

A quarter of a century after East Germany disappeared, united Germany has yet to come to terms with the East’s legacy of cheating in sports. Only one other athlete, sprinter Gesine Walther-Tettenborn, has asked that her name be removed from the record books, though the evidence is unassailable that East Germany systematically sought to “virilize” its female athletes through daily doses of testosterone and other banned substances.

Track legend Marita Koch, who in 1985 in Australia set a world record in the 400-meter run , still insists that she never took steroids, despite records from the East German secret police, the Stasi, that she was given male hormones in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1984.

And little is being done to help the women whose bodies were tampered with during their sensitive teen years cope with the health consequences. Women developed cancers and intense pain that led to morphine addictions. Birth defects among children became common. Combining East and West, 30 athletes have died young.

And Geipel, who now heads the Doping Victims Assistance Organization, believes it’s not just Germany that has yet to learn the lesson. Governments around the world, she says, put the same overblown value on sport victory as East Germany did and turn a blind eye to drug use by athletes to attain that glory.

“The dreams of glory and medals ignore the army of those who will die young, or suffer for life,” she said. “The story in East Germany was of external coercion to take the drugs. The story today is of external and internal pressure. But the results are the same – medals and ruined lives.”

The most famous example is Heidi Krieger, a former Olympic shot putter whose hormone routine changed her body so severely that she is now Andreas Krieger, a man. Krieger has said that even before the hormones he was conflicted about gender, but the East German doping left him no choice. The German medal honoring those who have promoted understanding of the cost of doping is the Heidi Krieger Award.

The full extent of East Germany’s doping program didn’t come to light until after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. That’s when Werner Franke, one of Germany’s and the world’s most highly regarded biochemical researchers, and his wife, Brigitte Berendonk, a former West German Olympian in discus, began working to gain access to the official medical records and research of East Germany’s Olympic athletes.

Their work, unfolding over a quarter of a century in books and scientific papers, television shows and classroom forums, exposed the details and heavy human toll of the country’s secret doping program. Those costs included involuntary sex changes, sexual identity crises, birth defects, heart attacks and infertility.

The deaths of two former East German athletes have been tied to the official drug program.

What they found was a perfect storm for a program of cheating at sport. East Germany, with only 17 million people, was the poor relation of West Germany, which from the 1960s through the 1980s came out of the total economic collapse that followed the Nazi defeat in World War II. In the communist world, East Germany was at best the little brother vying for attention from the dominant Soviet Union.

But it could win international attention, and even envy, through sport.

Athletes in other nations surely took performance-enhancing drugs. But the records indicate that the East German program crossed lines others had shied away from. The East German track program began in 1968 giving male hormones to top female athletes, without the knowledge or consent of those taking them. By the mid-1970s, they were giving them to girls as young as 12.

The program was officially supported by the Stasi and the results were glorious: champions and world records galore. Promising sprinters, shot putters, swimmers, jumpers and others were all given the blue “vitamins” and in return brought glory to a struggling government.

And the program didn’t end when East Germany did.

“There is evidence, even court evidence, that these practices continue,” Franke said. “What we have shown is severe in every aspect, but especially for a unified Germany’s sporting programs. The truth is criminality is ignored when it’s successful.”

Consider the case of the German “2002 coach of the year,” Thomas Springstein. Springstein cut his teeth in the old East German sports program, where he coached world champion sprinter Katrin Krabbe, who was banned for drug use before the 1992 Olympic Games, when she was running and he was coaching for the unified German team.

Old habits die hard, apparently. In 2006, Springstein was convicted of giving drugs to a minor, a young German track champion who had started running with him when she was 12 and who left his program when she was 16. Instead of taking the pills Springstein had told her were vitamins, she gave them to her mother, who kept some and eventually sent them to a lab for testing. The pills were pure testosterone. Springstein was given a 16-month suspended sentence and 150 hours of community service.

“Germany has never dealt with its legacy of steroid use,” Franke said. “When they’re being used on young girls, that’s the end of the discussion. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, it must be stopped. But until we honestly address this legacy of anything for national glory, it will not be dealt with.”

Berendonk’s book on the subject, “Doping,” includes information from many of the Stasi records. Among the findings: The head of the East German Olympic committee, when it became clear that the Soviet bloc would boycott the 1984 games in Los Angeles, told his coaches that they had make sure that the West would sorely miss the East German runners.

“Everything is allowed,” he wrote in a letter to track coaches early that summer. “Performance is crucial.”

Geipel was already receiving high doses of the blue pills. She was a relative newcomer to the team, and in her own words, a very raw talent. That summer, she was part of a sprint relay team of some of East Germany’s fastest runners, but running as a club team on the record-setting day (apparently in an attempt to establish both national and club team records). Motor Jena has since been found to have been a club used by East Germany for doping experiments.

To many people, Geipel’s life in East Germany can be summed up in a single race that June, in Erfurt, East Germany – 42.2 ticks of a stopwatch that should have been the most enduring triumph of her life and is still listed in international databases as one of the fastest times in the history of women’s track and field.

To Geipel, it’s a deep shame, brought on by the blue pills her trainers fed her that changed and ultimately destroyed her body. She was 17.

“I came suddenly on the scene, from the backwoods,” she explained. “They told me that therefore I was deficient in the vitamins I needed to compete. I took their pills and noticed my muscles growing, in almost no time. I thought they must have been correct. But the pills were steroids.”

Within a year of helping to set that record, Geipel had been tossed aside by her nation. She had confided to a few trusted people that she’d planned to defect to the United States during the 1984 Olympics. Word reached officials. Shortly after, team doctors invented a pretext for surgery and intentionally damaged several of her organs, leading to decades of recovery.

She couldn’t run, neither in the sense of racing nor in the sense of leaving her closed society. Instead, she was a former track star in a nation that took much of its pride of place among nations through the accomplishments of its female track and field athletes.

Stasi records indicate that every top athlete on the East German track teams after the 1970s was given steroids. For decades in the West, the women on the East German track team were an easy late-night talk show joke: Muscular, bearded, deep-voiced, scary.

Geipel notes that the costs were no laughing matter: deaths, cancers and morphine addictions, all attributed to doping. Between the doping and surgery, she herself was left unable to have children, with years of muscle ruptures and intense pain and lasting kidney and heart problems.

“They gave me these drugs and lied about what they were, and in doing so they robbed me of who I was, and who I am,” she said. “I believe that I could have been a champion without steroids. I was getting faster before the drugs, and I believe I could have been just as fast if I’d never had them. But I will never know, no one will ever know, because they robbed me of the chance to find out what my true potential was.”