THE PROTEST WAS INTENDED to be low-key. Graying victims of East Germany’s state-run doping program positioned themselves at the entrance to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium where they stood passing out thousands of purple cardboard “glasses” to spectators of the ongoing 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics bearing the words “Ich will das nicht sehen” (awkwardly translated as “I don’t want to see cheats”). In fact, the action looked downright harmless, which made the enraged reaction on the part of German discus throwing champion Robert Harting on August 18 all the harder for many guests to understand. “I hope,” Harting told a press conference, “that when I throw my discus it’ll head straight for those glasses, and then they won’t see anything anymore.”
Outside the IAAF World Championships in
Athletics at Berlin's Olympic Stadium
The protesters don’t just have Harting spewing threats, they have also embarrassed Germany’s entire sports establishment. And yet, it wasn’t originally meant to be this way. Twenty years ago, these athletes were not passing out cardboard glasses. No, back then they were the ones standing proudly on the winners’ podium receiving medals. A lot of medals. But today, in their thirties, forties, and fifties, they are instead receiving treatment for a whole range of ailments, ranging from sterility, hormonal dysfunction, asthma, diabetes, chronic joint and back pain to heart disease and kidney failure. And they want the world to know about it.
It all started back in the 1950s when Communist leader Walter Ulbricht elevated the cultivation of sports to a national priority. Building on the Soviet Union’s wildly successful athletics programs, the GDR developed an elaborate cadre system of its own. The state established a tight network of local training centers and “training bases” throughout the country. These were designed to identify future athletic talents early on and prepare prospective candidates for special state “Children and Youth Sport Schools” (KJS). With the help of state-of-the-art sports science, these elite institutions provided intensive sports education alongside regular school subjects and trained young people for top-class performance. The graduates of these institutions were then prepared for international competition. A system of nearly constant tournaments and championships kept them at peak level year round.
The East German team at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich
As in the Soviet Union, athletics played a critical role in society. At the highest level, athletic victories were intended to demonstrate the superiority of socialist training and discipline, providing the population with achievements they could all be generally proud of. In addition, athletics taught teamwork, healthy habits, social ethics, personal morals, and provided personal fulfillment in an environment of material scarcity.
East Germany’s success at the Olympic Games and other international athletic events regularly stunned the world and provided the tiny communist outpost with a prestige it never could have earned in any other way. Who can forget Katarina Witt's gold medals at Sarajevo and Calgary? But even in the regime’s glory days it was obvious to observers that such superhuman achievements were not possible through training and dedication alone. It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989 that the full extent of the state-sponsored doping program has come to light. In fact, doping was secretly carried out at all levels of sports – and at all ages.
The most common substance employed was the anabolic steroid Oral Turinabol from the VEB Jenapharm plant in Jena, which the athletes were given as “vitamins” or “regeneration” tablets. Alongside its effect on muscle growth, Oral Turinabol influenced hormone production and promoted risky and aggressive behavior. Female swimmers and track and field athletes were particularly affected, suffering from odd body hair patterns, deepened voices, a generally masculine build and appearance, and sterility. Shot-putter Birgit Böse, for example, was told by her gynecologist at age twenty-four that she had the reproductive apparatus of an eleven year-old girl. She remains childless to this day. Gymnasts and figure skaters as young as ten or twelve were given steroids mixed into their food. Many of these women did go on to bear children, but their offspring frequently suffered from chronic ailments directly related to the massive use of illegal medications.
Shot-putter Birgit Böse in 1975:
"The reproductive apparatus of an 11 year-old girl"
Both the doping program and athletics as a whole stood under the direct supervision of the East German secret police – the Stasi. According to historian Giselher Spitzer, the GDR’s sports doctors doped a total of some 10,000 athletes. 600 were still actively enrolled in the program when the regime collapsed in 1989. The doctors were well aware that they could expect permanent heart and liver damage to arise in ten percent of their “patients.” Even more disturbing to many former GDR athletes is the knowledge that many of the medications they were given without their knowledge were not intended to improve their performance at all but rather simply to test new drugs on human guinea pigs. Revelations like this have aroused memories of the eugenics and concentration camp experiments of the Nazis – memories most people would like to leave behind them. And while all of this was going on, the Stasi employed an army of 3,000 informants at any given moment to keep these athletes in line and prevent them from speaking to the foreign press.
Today, many of the doctors and coaches implicated in the decades-long doping scandal are still active in the sports world. The victims have so far waited in vain for justice. If they can prove they were deliberately harmed, they usually receive an apology and one thousand Euros in compensation for their ordeal. Organizations such as the Doping Victim Aid Association are still demanding action – both to compensate former East German athletes and above all to prevent future victims. That is the motive behind their current “I don’t want to see cheats” demonstration at the Olympic Stadium.
East German doping coach Werner Goldmann
Such idealistic actions are anything but welcome within the athletic community itself. East German coaches still enjoy a reputation as the world's best, and their protégés are loyal to the grave. For a champion like Robert Harting, who has been groomed for victory by former GDR coach Werner Goldmann, anti-doping protesters are just so many “traitors” (the German term, Nestbeschmutzer, literally means “nest-shitters”). Earlier this year, the doping commission of the German Olympic Sports Confederation ruled that the unrepentant Goldmann had regularly doped discus throwers with Oral Turinabol back in the 1980s, leading to his recent removal from the German Track Federation. Calls for his resignation from coaching are heard daily throughout the sports world. But Harting, who was born in the eastern town of Cottbus in 1984, is closing ranks with his mentor, and as long as athletes like him keep winning medals, the legacy of East Germany’s master dopers will live on. But why should that surprise us? It's always the victors who get to write history.
Promotional photo of discus thrower Robert Harting.
“I hope that when I throw my discus it’ll head
straight for those glasses!"