Tarnished legacy of Olympic gold

A former East German official is on trial this week for doping athletes.

As Germany approaches the 10-year anniversary of unification, another dark chapter from its recent past continues to unfold.

As head of the East German sports federation from 1963 to 1988, Manfred Ewald brought unprecedented distinction to his country in the form of 542 Olympic medals.

On May 9, he went on trial in Berlin, charged with 142 counts of bodily harm.

Prosecutors contend that the small Communist state's Olympic glory days were made possible through a secret steroid program that Mr. Ewald and his codefendant, sports doctor Manfred Hppner, planned and carried out with scant regard for the well-being of athletes. Both deny the charges.

Thirty-two former sports stars, mainly female track-and-field athletes and swimmers, are coplaintiffs. Almost 20 years after being doped without their knowledge as children in East Germany's elite sports schools, they say they are still coming to terms with the damaging side-effects. "The lives of young girls were changed and disrupted. It's the most cynical thing that exists - state-ordered experiments on human beings," says Werner Franke, the cancer researcher who first came across documentation of the steroid program after German unification in 1990.

During the cold war, international sports arenas served as bloodless battlefields, where victories and defeats inevitably took on ideological undertones. In 1974, Ewald allegedly gathered leading East German scientists and doctors to develop the clandestine doping program. Two years later, at the Montreal Olympics, East Germany won more gold medals than the United States and was second only to the Soviet Union.

"Certainly steroid use increased during the cold war," says Giselher Spitzer, a historian at the Institute for Sports Science in Potsdam. "In the West, athletes at least knew that they were being doped - or wanted it themselves. In the East, athletes were doped without their knowledge. To this day, most East German athletes who were drugged don't know about their health condition. It was always kept secret, and that's the difference."

As a result of the testosterone they unwittingly consumed as girls, many female athletes say they have developed deep voices, excessive body hair, and hormonal imbalances. Several coplaintiffs blame the steroids for birth defects in their children and miscarriages.

Initially, prosecutors planned to hear the charges against Ewald in a single court session. But in part because of publicity, Dr. Spitzer says, a longer trial is now under way. "It's not about getting even, but about confronting the past," says Spitzer. "The trials have made clear that doping is not only deception, but that it is damaging to health."

One positive effect of the proceedings, Spitzer says, is the high public awareness about the hazards of doping.

Spitzer has been commissioned by the German parliament to investigate the extent of steroid use in the former East Germany. According to his calculations, at least 10,000 athletes took steroids - usually unknowingly - during Ewald's tenure.

Spitzer also discovered evidence that during the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Ewald succeeded in housing the East German track team 500 miles away to avoid steroid tests. He allegedly ordered that female athletes who had developed especially deep voices should not give TV interviews.

While Berlin prosecutors have investigated some 1,000 sports officials and others in connection with steroid use, only a few have ever been brought to trial, due to lack of evidence. The highest-ranking East German sports official convicted so far, a swim-team doctor, received a 15-month suspended prison sentence and a fine.

Prosecutors are in a rush to bring the men behind the steroid program to trial, as the statute of limitations on crimes committed in East Germany runs out later this year.

Although the historical context has changed, Spitzer warns that the disappearance of competing ideological camps does not mean that steroids are no longer an issue for athletes. In fact, he says, the problem has gotten worse.

"Today, in a time when conflicting systems don't exist anymore, the economic pressures are larger," says Spitzer.

"Even more important are the contracts with sponsors. The economic motive - to perform better through deceit - has replaced the political motive. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain the [continuing] use of drugs in sports."

There are even indications that malice could be a motive in some cases.

Germany's star long-distance runner, Dieter Baumann, is fighting a two-year suspension imposed after he tested positive last fall for the performance-enhancing drug nandrolone. Tests found his toothpaste had been contaminated with the drug, which Mr. Baumann claims was done without his knowledge. He hopes his court battle will allow him to take part in the Sydney Olympics in September.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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