Performance-enhancing drugs are taken all the time in sports. Everywhere. But the degree to which they were used in East Germany, at the behest of the state, is unmatched. Often unbeknownst to them, East German athletes were frequently given anabolic steroids, sex and growth hormones and extreme doses of pain medication. For many of those affected, severe health consequences have been the result, some of which are only now making themselves felt. They include heart disease, kidney complications, skin troubles and problems with bones and sex organs. Some suffer from depression and eating disorders or are traumatized. But the issue is hardly ever spoken about: The victims are reticent and those responsible remain silent.
After extensive reporting and numerous efforts to contact victims, five people agreed to talk with ZEIT ONLINE about doping in East Germany. They include a female discus thrower who never found her way to the very top during her career and is seriously ill today; the daughter of an East German canoe racer who believes she too suffers from the performance-enhancing drugs taken by her mother; a handball player from the top East German league, who is one of the few men willing to talk about his health problems; a gymnast who was not only administered performance-enhancing drugs, but also experienced other forms of abuse; and finally, a coach who regrets what she did back then but who also sees herself as a victim. Together, their stories provide a comprehensive look at how the East German doping system worked. And what the consequences continue to be today.
With additional reporting by Stefanie Sippel
Katja Hofmann, 44, Discus Thrower, Dynamo Berlin
I enjoy life, but I know that I won't grow to be very old. I have an incurable illness. If I were to list all my health problems using just keywords, it would take several minutes. Multiple times each week, I go to the doctor and to physical and occupational therapy. I take around 10 pills each day. Unfortunately, my body doesn't tolerate pain medication, so I have to make due without. Pain is my constant companion during the day and wakes me up in the night. Sometimes, it becomes so intense that I have to vomit.
I am actually quite a cheerful person and I try to stay in a good mood. But every week, I suffer from at least one panic attack. It can happen anywhere: in crowds, on the commuter train. My last really bad panic attack happened a few months ago. I was at the cinema watching a movie with my foster child, and as we were leaving the theater, I suddenly couldn't breathe anymore, and my heart started racing. I thought I was going to fall over dead. My child stood completely helplessly next to me. I was lucky because a passerby took care of both of us until I recovered.
As a young woman in East Germany, I participated in high-level competitive sports. I was a discus thrower for the sports club Spartakiade 1989 in East Berlin and was the fourth best in the country in my age group. Today, few recognize my name because I never took part in the Olympics and I stopped throwing a long time ago. But my sporting career has followed me, because as I know now, I was given performance-enhancing drugs. Without my knowledge. Again and again. For years.
Katja Hofmann is sitting in a café in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin with a friendly smile on her face. She is very ill. But she's not the only former East German athlete in such poor health. She was doped as a minor without her knowledge. Experts believe that between 10,000 and 15,000 athletes were likewise given performance-enhancing drugs by the regime. In comparison to the rest of the population, doping victims die on average 10 to 12 years earlier and are at a 2.7-times greater risk of falling seriously ill than the general population. Often, these people are not known to the public at large because only very few of them pursued successful sporting careers.
In my sports club in Berlin, I would be given packets of powder. I was 13 or 14 years old the first time. The word Dynvital was on the label. I had no choice but to swallow it. My coach told me they were vitamins. She made sure that I always took it and acted as though she was doing me a favor. I trusted her, but she deceived me. I also know that she was only at the very end of the chain of command.
I would love to talk to her today, but I'm not ready for it yet. I also think that she wouldn't want to.
My mother saved a packet of Dynvital. She wouldn't let anyone touch it; she wanted to save it as evidence.
I loved my sport. As a child, I had an idol. Ulf Timmermann was my role model, and, of course, Katarina Witt. I still have an autograph from her. "We are better than the West," we were always told. It was also constantly said in East German sports that: "Individuals don't matter." We were guinea pigs.
Unable to Travel
I have to live with the consequences today. I would love to work. Up until three years ago, I was still able to work 10 hours a week as an assistant at a medical practice. Now, I can't even do that, and I've been a housewife since February 2015. Even then, I am quickly overcome by fatigue and can hardly concentrate. Just about any kind of housework makes my hands hurt.
I am homosexual. That's not a problem as such, nor is it an issue for my family and friends. But I still wonder if I might have loved men if I had never been given that powder back then.
The life expectancy of East German doping victims is reduced by up to 12 years
The substances female athletes were forced to take made many of them more masculine. Their voices became deeper, hair began growing in unusual places, their muscles grew and their sex organs either shriveled or grew rapidly. Such changes to the body can lead to changes in identity, including one's psychosexual identity.
My illnesses place severe limits on my day-to-day life. Years ago, I flew to Madeira on vacation. That was risky. Because of my blood-clotting disorder and the risk of getting thrombosis, I'm no longer able to take long flights. So, before takeoff, I injected a medication, but the pain during the flight and afterward was still extremely bad.
Isn't it weird? The wall has been gone for more than a quarter century, but East Germany has managed to limit my ability to travel even today.
I don't get much help from politicians. But the state should take responsibility and grant us all a special pension. The state, after all, abused our bodies and our souls. We aren't to blame for our fates. It's not normal that you have to constantly go to the doctor in your early 40s like others do when they turn 70 or 80.
The East German doping system was characterized by bureaucracy. It was controlled by the East German secret police, the Stasi, and at its peak, around 3,000 spies were active in the sporting world. The athletes were seen as products "of a real socialist community project." Scientific institutions were directly involved in the system, including the secret Research Institute for Physical Education and Sports Leipzig and the pharmaceutical industry, led by the state-run company Jenapharm, which produced the so-called "blue miracle pill" (Oral Turinabol), an anabolic steroid. Sports groups such as the German Gymnastics and Sports Federation, the National Olympic Committee and the Sports Medicine Service were also involved. The central doping laboratory in Kreischa tested the athletes for one reason only: to ensure that they didn't fail drug tests during competitions abroad. The Health Ministry held political responsibility.
"In conversation, the IMB (Eds. note: informant) made clear that for several years, he has been administering the preparation STS (steroid substance) to the athletes without it ever having been evaluated in accordance with pharmaceutical law.
The preparation in question was developed exclusively for sports and exhibits a weaker effect than the more frequently used Oral-Turinabol.
STS does not produce such manifest physical transformations, but it also doesn't achieve the same results in competition.
Its application takes place under the individual responsibility of the IMB, without knowledge regarding the possible side effects the athletes may experience in 10 or 20 years.
Meeting report IMB "Technik," Nov. 28, 1985"
When I tell my story, I am often confronted with a lack of understanding. Just a few years ago, I went to a doctor in Berlin to get a report that would help me be officially recognized as a doping victim. But he refused to examine me and sent me away. Later, I learned that he had been a sports doctor in East Germany. Sometimes, it seems like I am being victimized a second time today.
The illnesses, the constant pain and the perpetual threat of deadly complications are my steady companions. But I don't want to think about the future, I just want to live. I have known for around 20 years that I am seriously ill, but I have learned to deal with it. My 11-year-old child is my only solace but is likewise chronically ill. I welcome the responsibility of raising a child. It gives me courage and hope that my life won't get even worse.