The East German Doping Machine￼
From the late 1960’s through the 1980’s, athletes from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) swam their way to glory, winning Olympic gold medals, setting world records and – so it seemed at the time to some -demonstrating the superiority of communism over its capitalist competitors. The achievements of the East German aquatic stars were duly acknowledged by the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) between the years of 1981 through 1993, when fifteen East Germans were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
While many in the West suspected the East Germans had been augmenting their abilities with some kind of pharmacological help, it wasn’t until after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of communism in Germany in the early 1990’s, that the secrets behind the extraordinary East German sporting success came to light.
In addition to a sophisticated talent identification system and the best professional coaching and training methods in the world at the time, the East German athletes also received the best in medical and, unbeknownst to most swimmers, chemical support. This included regularly administered doses of Oral-Turinabol (OT), an East German-manufactured anabolic steroid. It was the mainstay of “State Plan 14.25,” the secret policy directing the pharmacological development of sport nationwide. Doctors passed the little pink and blue pills on to coaches, who doled them out in daily rations of the vitamins to their trusting athletes.
The success of the East German athletes did not come without a price. Many of the athletes, including several ISHOF honorees, experienced serious medical problems, such as signs of virilization – increased growth of bodily hair (hirsutism), voice changes and disturbances of the libido while competing and since retirement have developed tumors, liver damage, heart conditions, problems with fertility and deformities in offspring. Although the East German physicians were aware of the damaging effects of androgens as early as the mid 1970’s, they continued to provide female swimmers with these drugs through the 1980’s.
While we know today that many of the East German athletes who have been honored by the International Swimming Hall of Fame have been identified in documents as having received steroids and hormones, none ever tested positive in tests administered by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and their accomplishments continue to be recognized by both the IOC and the Federation International de Natation Amateur (FINA). As the recognized Hall of Fame of FINA, ISHOF continues to honor the achievements of the athletes of the former German Democratic Republic as both products and victims of a corrupt sports system and as a warning to young athletes about the consequences of using performance enhancing drugs.
For more information see:
Faust’s Gold: Inside The East German Doping Machine by Steven Ungerleider, Thomas Dunne Books, 2001
Fear of the Future: by Karin Helmstaedt
Birgit Meineke-Heukrodt, a product – and victim of the East German swimming machine, tells how the system worked and the effects which prolonged steroid abuse has had on her health.
Drugs in Sport
Sitting in a small cheaply furnished lounge of the Buch Clinic in what was once East Berlin, Dr. Birgit Meineke – Heukrodt looks like many former top athletes. Strikingly tall and slim with shoulder-length blond hair, her broad powerful shoulders are a visible vestige of her swimming days
The shock comes when the 34-year-old general surgeon relates how she came through the ranks of East Germany’s unparalleled sporting machine. Speaking in the baritone voice resulting from years of steroid use, she tells a classic story of socialist achievement with a macabre twist. How the youthful days of privilege and success have come back to haunt her with a legacy of health worries and emotional turmoil.
Between 1980 and 1984, as Birgit Meineke, she was the fastest freestyle swimmer in the world. Three-time world champion, six-time European champion, with a string of relay world records, she was an icon in the German Democratic Republic, one of the country’s much touted “ambassadors in tracksuits.”
As a member of that cherished elite she also received the best in medical and, unbeknownst to her, chemical support. Oral-Turinabol (OT) , an East German-manufactured anabolic steroid, packed the power behind the nation’s sporting punch for over two decades. It was the mainstay of “State Plan 14.25,” the secret policy directing the pharmacological development of sport nationwide. Doctors passed the little pink and blue pills on to coaches, who doled them out in daily rations of vitamins.
How Birgit came to swimming was no accident. Already in the 1960s East Germany had a system in place to stream children into its growing sports cartel. Talent scouts systematically sought out children whose physical characteristics showed promise for one sport or another.
“When I was in second grade people came to our school and announced that all children who knew how to swim should report to a certain place at a certain time,” Birgit recalls. “I told my parents I wanted to go. When I got there they took one look at my parents, and I was accepted. I couldn’t swim very well, but my parents are both very athletic and tall, so I met the requirements.”
The children were measured and weighed and sent to training centers to learn basic swimming skills, gradually increasing the training load to daily workouts. In fourth grade she was selected to attend the local sport school, one of many such state-supported institutions reserved for the country’s elite.
Birgit’s memories of the sport school are positive. Mingling with young athletes from many different sports, she had the luxury of small classes and better nutrition than normal schoolchildren.
Soon sport took precedence over school. As not all of the children could withstand the long days and ever-escalating physical workload, the drop-out rate was high. When training camps started in the seventh grade, the demands on the athlete’s time and energy were enormous. Despite several years of private tutoring, Birgit needed 15 years to finish school.
Four times a year the swimmers were sent to Leipzig where they were subjected to extensive performance testing at the Research Institute for Physical Culture and Sport. “We had to swim the flume with awful gas masks,” says Birgit, referring to a top secret 3×5 meters tank in which athletes could be observed as they swam against an adjustable current. “It was terrible,’ she grimaces.
But despite the often extreme nature of the testing, Birgit and her teammates never refused a single exercise. “We didn’t really have any chance to,” she says with a sigh. “They were things that were done and we just accepted them. I think you can only understand that when you’ve grown up in the DDR.”
By the time she was 12, Birgit was receiving pills after workouts. “I always assumed they were vitamins,’ she says, noting she recognized some of them. She’s not sure when the blue pills became part of the assortment. Later on she also received testosterone injections passed off as “vitamin cocktails.”
The Nightmare Begins
Providing urine for Doping Control before major competitions was part of the routine. “We were told we could have accidentally taken something in a cold medication, and that the tests were for our own protection,” she says. In reality such internal tests were the key to the system’s success. Any athlete whose urine still showed traces of drugs was not allowed to travel; this way the DDR avoided having athletes test positive at international competitions.
By the time she was 15, people remarked that Birgit’s voice had deepened. “I didn’t notice it myself,” she says. Her parents, who fully supported her career, maintain they never noticed it either even though they saw her every day.
“It was those who saw me less often that mentioned it to me,” she continues. “I asked my coach about it and he told me it was from the humidity in the swimming hall and our frequent colds.”
Despite other physical changes, the athletes never spoke between themselves about what was happening. “It was simply understood that we weren’t to talk about it,” Birgit says with a shrug. The subject was taboo.
Questions of any kind were discouraged. Birgit remembers complaining to the National Swim Team doctor, Dr. Lothar Kipke, about the severe bouts of acne she was experiencing before big competitions. He smirked at her, “You girls don’t get enough sex.” Such comments left a lasting impression, but like everything else, Birgit kept them to herself.
After all, there were many reasons to play along with the system. As a world champion athlete Birgit was a distinguished person in East German society. She was a multiple recipient of the Order of Merit of the Fatherland, one of the highest distinctions one could have in the DDR.
“We had a lot of attention from the press,” she remembers, “and we were allowed to travel, which was practically impossible for normal citizens.”
There were also material advantages. At 20, Birgit was given her own apartment and a Wartburg car, something for which one usually had to wait 15 years. Special prizes of up to 15,000 East German marks were awarded for record performances, “peanuts compared to what athletes earn today,” she says, “but a substantial sum in the DDR”
When Birgit retired at 20, most things returned to normal; the acne cleared up and her periods became regular. Only the voice changes were irreversible.
The wake-up call came in 1993 when a bout of jaundice revealed Hepatitis C and a liver tumor the size of a tennis ball. “That was hard,” she concedes. For the first time she thought seriously about doping and what consequences it may have.
Despite the well documented evidence linking such benign tumors with steroid use, Birgit minimizes the connection, “It’s gotten smaller,” she says, adding nonchalantly that such tumors occur often in young women. “It could be brought on by the Pill,” she says, “by the anabolics, or by the fact that I was subjected to a combination of the two.”
“The Hepatitis is actually more frightening,’ she continues. “One never knows how it might develop or influence the tumor. That’s the big question.”
Interestingly, Birgit feels no nostalgia for the glory days, “Absolutely none,” she says flatly. “It has no meaning anymore because that period of my life is over. My medals are all in a drawer in the basement and if someone asks me I’ll talk about it, but otherwise I never think about it.”
No doubt learning that her coach, Rolf Glaeser, had knowingly kept her in the dark about the drugs was the thread that unraveled her past. Glaeser, whom she considered an “ersatz father,” was convicted of bodily harm in August of 1998 for having fed steroids to Birgit and her teammates. Their relationship, once very close, has been “quieter” since.
As a physician, Birgit’s clinical detachment from her own physical reality serves a fundamental denial. Torn between her defense of a memorable time and the necessary questions that her profession imposes, she has chosen pragmatic acceptance as the way to make things bearable. Her conversation betrays disappointment, anger, and an outright refusal to be labeled a victim.
Yet in the next breath she reveals that she does live with a nebulous fear of the future. “I am afraid,’ she admits, “I also want to live to be 70 and be a grandmother and all the rest, but I don’t know if I will.”