In the seventies, the Berlin wall was part of a fortified border that split Germany in two. Officially, it kept the West out. But in reality, it kept East German citizens in while their government sought ways to demonstrate communist superiority to the rest of the world. Rare glimpses of life behind the Wall suggested a sporting revolution. Talented children were handpicked for special sports schools. Coaches and doctors were employed full-time to train them. Sports festivals became highly anticipated national events. Successful athletes enjoyed freedoms not available to their fellow citizens. This was the communist equivalent of fame and fortune – they became the public face of the German Democratic Republic.
In the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, the world took notice as East Germany, a relatively small country with few previous Olympic wins, triumphed with an impressive 40 gold medals. The women’s swim team alone won 11 of 13 swim events, an unprecedented feat. U.S. swimmer Wendy Boglioli describes her opponents performance at the Montreal Olympics, “They were very strong women; they were very fast; we thought they were machines. Here (we) were, four of America’s best athletes ever put together on a team, and every single day the East German women were winning every, every event.”
The secret to their success would not come to light for decades: a state-sponsored doping program. Under the auspices of East Germany’s elite sports federation, headed by Manfred Ewald and monitored by the Ministry of State Security (known as Stasi), the government used doping as part of a deceptive master plan to secure international prestige through success in sports. Girls as young as 12 were recruited from across the country, and without their knowledge, were regularly administered untested steroids and male hormones as part of their training. Ultimately, Olympic gold came at a disturbing price for many of the German athletes, specifically side effects ranging from male-type hair growth and deepened voices to liver and heart disease, depression, infertility, miscarriages, and even death.
The systematic doping began in 1974 when Party leaders met with the East German Sports Performance Committee to decide how best to guarantee gold medals and international glory. What they came up with was “state plan theme 14-25.” The protocol was based on the work of chemists and pharmacologists at a secret lab in Leipzig. A pill, known as Oral Turinabol, was given to the athletes to bolster their hormones. Oral-Turinabol, or O-T, was an anabolic steroid derived from testosterone. More than 3,000 Stasi moles within the sport system monitored scientists, coaches, and even athletes who secretly reported every move they and their colleagues made. The web of informers meant the athletes had to be wary of what they said – probing questions or dissent were immediately and harshly punished. Produced by the state-run pharmaceutical company, Jenapharm, it was given to the most promising athletes.
O-T and other anabolic steroids increase muscle mass and hasten recovery time, allowing athletes to train harder and build up more strength. And because they are similar to testosterone, they have a greater impact on women, who have less real testosterone in their bodies to begin with. Many of the girls had barely reached puberty when they began receiving the hormone pills. Their parents, too, were kept in the dark. East German swimmer Katharina Bullin describes the before and after of the drug use, “Drips, injections, pills, it was all normal (during training). Nothing strange about it and I wouldn’t have known what to ask because I wasn’t skeptical at all. I didn’t start to look like a man overnight, it happened gradually. I wasn’t really aware of it myself but it was obvious to everyone else. And whether I wore a dress or a skirt, make up or jewelry, it got worse and worse. They called me a transvestite or gay, and it shocked me.”
By the 1980s, steroid use was growing throughout the sports world, and scientists were fighting a constant battle to catch up with ever-more-sophisticated doping techniques. At the Pan American games in 1983, organizers asked West German scientists to set up a lab to test for illegal drug use. It was the first time a large number of positive tests became public. Steroids were becoming pervasive, and all athletes were affected. But while the opportunity to use performance-enhancing drugs was present, there were differences between the East German methods and everybody else’s. Doping in the GDR was different from the doping in the West of the world but it was also different from the doping in other parts of the East. It was German, it was orderly, it was bureaucratic, it was written up.