The East German Doping Machine by Karin Helmstaedt (2000)


First of all I’d like to say thank you to everyone here….. it’s an incredible honour to be here tonight …. and thanks to John Leonard and the American Swimming Coaches Association for bestowing this honour upon me. I have to tell you I’m especially happy that this award is connected to my work on doping in swimming because as you all know, doping has become something of a flogged horse in the world of sports journalism, and it’s a topic that usually doesn’t make you many friends!  When I first heard that I would receive this award I realized that I do have some readers who believe what I write, and that’s an amazing feeling.


I’d also like to take this opportunity to say a special thank you to my dear friend and editor Nick Thierry, the publisher of Swimnews Magazine, who couldn’t be here tonight because he’s off to the Olympics very soon.  Nick was the first person to have listened to my suspicions back in the early days, and he’s not only supported much of my research both morally and financially, but within the scope of his publication, he had the courage to print from the beginning what a lot of larger, more established publications would not.


My interest in doping dates back to my very first international competition as a swimmer: I was barely 18 and went to Germany and Sweden as part of a Canadian national team tour.  It was the first time I was confronted with Eastern European swimmers at close range … East Germans, Romanians, and Russians.  It was also he first time I heard what sounded like male voices in the women’s locker rooms, saw the moon-shaped faces, and unseemly hair on the haunches of some of my competitors.  And I saw what they could do in the water.  After questioning one of the Canadian coaches about their appearance I was told in low tones something along the lines of “some people suspect them of being on drugs.”


I later wrote a term paper in senior high school on the use of anabolic steroids in sport.  A couple of years later at the University of Toronto I was studying Phys.  Ed, still on the national team and, several international experiences richer.


As an athlete, I was unsettled by the unquestionable East German dominance of my sport.  Perhaps because I was distinctly aware of the kind of law of silence that we observed on the deck at international meets.  Drugs were NOT a topic of conversation….. no one had proof, the coaches would say.  Or, you can’t think about that sort of thing: it’s self-defeating.


It may have been self-defeating, but they were wrong when they said that there was no proof.  In Germany the defection of East German breaststroker Renate Vogel caused a huge stir in the media already in 1979: she was one of the Wundermaedchen from the world championships in Belgrade in 1973, and when she got out she revealed enough of what had been done with her that, had the political will been otherwise, the truth about East Germany could have come out much sooner.


West German intelligence and government knew what was going on behind the Wall as early as 1974.  Throughout the 80s and the first half of the 90s a relentless stream of doping revelations in the German press was just as relentlessly ignored.  We as athletes were continually faced with the mysterious superiority of the stand-offish “diplomats in track suits”…East German coaches meanwhile boasted individual aspects of their sport science wonders, but kept the full picture of systematic drug use top secret.  The result was that we trained the endless kilometres without the drugs to fortify our muscles.  We were subjected to lactate tests that accumulated mountains of data and not a single practical result.  We were doing everything the way the East Germans did … or so we naively thought.  So why weren’t the results there too?


The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the end of an era.  The beginning of the end of the Cold War, the end of a divided Europe, and a divided Germany.  It spelled the end of the total control that East German bureaucrats and sports officials had exerted upon their youth…. and the beginning of a long and painful period of revelation and reckoning.


It was also a turning point for my family, half of which is of East German origin.  It turns out that swimming also runs in the family somewhat, and I discovered a disturbing case within my own family of a swimmer, a 1970’s Olympic hopeful, who died of heart failure at the age of 17.  His body was found three hours after practice at the bottom of the pool.

As a journalist I set about following my hunches, and finding out what it was that no one wanted to know.  It was painstaking work, learning German as I went …. finding the pieces of a massively complicated puzzle, that slowly came together by 1998.  The more I learned, and the more I talked with the victims of the East German system…. the more the women who had once been my invincible competition were reduced to beings worthy of empathy and compassion.


The German Doping Trials, which began in March 1998, were the result of the necessary hashing out of East German history.  It took a long time to make them happen, but we can be grateful they happened at all, and Prof.  Werner Franke and his wife Brigitte Berendonk in Heidelberg are to be thanked not only for their research, but also for their determination in forcing the issue into the limelight.


Sitting in on those trials was not easy.  I often had the feeling I was caught up in a bad sci-fi film.  Worse than the realization that I and my teammates had been hoodwinked for years, was how calculated and brutal it had all been.  How to comprehend the perversion of a political system that instrumentalises human beings?  How to understand doctors who administer dangerous substances to healthy children?  How to understand coaches who morally and emotionally betray their athletes?  And then persist in denying it all in the face of the results?


Those results are hideous today: many women who were fed anabolic steroids as young girls now suffer from permanently deepened voices and excess facial hair.  The list of complaints goes on with permanent joint damage, reproductive disorders, multiple miscarriages, liver tumors, breast cancer and, in one of the worst cases, gender dysphoria.  Perhaps most frightening of all is the fact that in a number of cases, children of the next generation have been affected as well, with physical deformities and other serious health problems.


The punishments handed down to East German coaches, doctors and officials convicted of bodily harm through doping are a joke compared to what many victims continue to endure.  But it never was a matter of getting even.  It was a matter of achieving open and official recognition of what happened in East Germany, of how so much of sporting history had been distorted.  And it’s disheartening when, in the middle of all of that, the Chinese show strong signs of following a similar agenda.  Just this week China announced that it would be leaving 27 of its 311 athletes behind because they had tested positive for drugs.  Four of them were swimmers, and that means that China has had five positives in swimming alone since the month of May.  Juan Antonio Samaranch typically put a positive spin on it and said, “The system works!  They’re cleaning house!” But I fail to see that we’ve made any headway at all.


One Canadian coach recently said to me, “since about 1993 it’s disheartening to coach swimmers at the elite level because of the plethora of drugs.  Just when we got rid of the DDR, the USSR et al, everyone seems to be into it now.” Perhaps many of you in this room have had the same thought in recent years.  And what does that say to me?  It says that the angst and the unease have spread beyond the gripers huddled in the press room.  They’ve spread across every country and every sport, and the fact that we’re currently experiencing a jump in top performances in swimming like we haven’t seen since 1976, only intensifies the alarm. And yet it all keeps going on.


As a parent myself, I sit before a dilemma: my son will soon be 5 …. he’s active, well built and oozes talent for swimming, soccer, or even gymnastics. I live in what was once East Berlin and I always say if it were still the good old days, they’d already have him pegged. This year I observed his fascination for the Tour de France. When held say to me, “Mummy, I want to be a cyclist” … I was forced to consider what implications a comment like that actually holds. I look at what sport has become, what OUR sport has become: a sport in which every outstanding performance is questioned. And I think to myself, how far do I let him go? What do I encourage, what CAN I encourage? In the final analysis, I want my son to have the good things from sport that I had. In which case my only recourse, and my ultimate responsibility is VIGILANCE.


On the eve of another Olympic Games, I can’t help thinking, back in the 70s the Olympics were good fun….. because although there were drugs-and there were lots of them, not only in the East Bloc-we didn’t have the knowledge that we have today.  Back then ignorance was bliss, and we could just enjoy the Games.  Now we have IOC scandals, out-of-competition testing, designer drugs, creatine, money, money, money…. and soon there will be other techniques for athlete building that even the East Germans hadn’t dreamt up.  I’m not alone when I look toward Sydney with a mixture of excitement and foreboding, wondering how many positive tests will go unpunished, and worse, how many positives won’t even show up.


The bottom line of what I and so many other journalists have been trying to say is that: whether it’s an Olympics, a world championship, or a varsity competition, victory at any price is NOT an acceptable philosophy.  Coaches are the ones first in line with the athletes, they see them often more than their parents do, and I think their responsibility is AWARENESS.  Awareness of the value of sport as we once knew it to be: as a test of out natural capabilities.  They need to know BEFORE they step onto the deck that there IS a long run for their athletes; and drugs do have devastating effects long after the thrill of the medal podium and the million dollar contracts.


The drug cheats will continue to outfox the scientific world.  It’s no secret either that the technology abounds to catch them.  It’s the will to use it that is lacking.  It’s an utter mystery why the carbon isotope testing technique or even the new test for EPO will not be used in any effective capacity at these Games.  Three days ago in this country the top Olympic swim coaches complained that in the last five months not one top American swimmer has been tested out of competition.  That’s a discrepancy that’s hard to understand given all the posturing to the contrary.  And it’s not very reassuring, because the same probably goes for other sports, and other countries.  Why the IOC, and the Olympic Committees aren’t applying the mountains of research available with the utmost of energy, is something only they see a reason for.


As if to underline that, Charles Yesalis of Penn State University said at a conference two years ago: “Honest, investigative journalism is the best way to investigate drug use.  Scientific sampling and surveying have too many problems to get anything useful.”


“Useful” is a relative term, but if writing about it can stop it from happening even once, then my feeling is that it’s all been well worth it. Thank you.

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