The Sad Legacy of East German Doping

People Look Over Barb Wire at Berlin Wall

Last post I discussed the rise of positive doping tests in the aquatics world (here), echoing the terrible doping decades of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Also, last week, Swimming World published an excellent article (here) about the problems and politics with the testing process. With this post I’d like to close out this unintended trilogy with some scary statistics about the disturbing health problems encountered by dopers, and particularly the notorious East German doping program.

Between 1968 and 1988, East Germany won as astonishing 409 Summer Olympics medals, and that didn’t include the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles where they were part of the Soviet bloc boycott. In fact, they had the second highest medal total in 3 of those 5 Olympics, and were never worse than 5th. If we only count swimming, they had the highest medal count in the 1988 and 1980 (Western boycott), and never finished lower than 3rd. Not bad for a population of 19 million at its highest.

Virtually none of their athletes tested positive at the Olympics, or any other international competition. However, rumours were rampant as to how they achieved this incredible performance. A few defecting athletes eventually managed to give us a very good picture of how: State Plan 14.25. This plan, as we found out when files were made public in 1993, started roughly in 1965 and was administered by the state secret police, Stasi. It involved at its peak up to 1500 scientists and doctors in what Manfred Ewald, head of GDR’s sports federation, later described as state-imposed blanket doping. Children were tested in school, and those with athletic ability were put into sports schools, where doping was mandatory and administered to children as young as 10.

The drug of choice was Oral Turinabol, the same anabolic steroid that Russian Nikita Maksimov tested positive for in 2013. However, State Plan 14.25 involved many other performance enhancing drugs. One estimate had the plan giving out as many as 2 million performance enhancing pills to athletes each year, with the total number of participating athletes at between 9,000 and 10,000.

Being an organized and state-sponsored program, East German doctors were able to develop a massive data base concerning effectiveness, dosages, and most importantly, the amount of time the drug remained in the body at testable levels. Then, in order to ensure that no international positive tests would come about, they would test athletes immediately before big competitions. Those who failed would be quietly withdrawn from the competition.

Unfortunately, the doctors also compiled a huge amount of knowledge about side effects and negative health effects. But that information was kept away from the athletes. All drugs were described as vitamins, given supposedly to make up for a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. Side effects started quickly, and were typically explained to the athletes as part of puberty, or the flu. Among females the early side effects included deeper voices, facial hair (some teenage girls had to shave), fewer secondary sexual characteristics, and much higher chances of kidney failure. Later on the side effects became far more serious, including liver and lung problems, ovarian cysts, joint problems, depression, dramatic drops in bone density, and even worse.

Among men there appeared to be fewer early side effects, although the athletes with the highest steroid intake often developed enlarged breasts and organ problems. Later on, the effects were basically the male versions of the female issues, such as impotence and testicular cancer.

One East German doctor estimated that 90% of the athletes subjected to State Plan 14.25 had serious health issues later in life.

From 2005 – 2007, one of the only studies of the long term impacts of steroid use was carried out by Dr. Giselher Spitzer, Associate Professor at Humboldt University. This study started off with 60 former East German athletes of between 40 and 60 years old, as well as their offspring. Over the course of the study, one participant died, and 7 more dropped out for psychological reasons. The study continued with remaining 52 participants and their 69 offspring.

The results of that study are staggering.

For the athletes, they determined the following:

  • 25% of athletes developed cancer
  • 38% had severe depression with suicidal tendencies
  • 62% had therapy for psychiatric issues

In her follow-up book, “Doping in the GDR“, Dr. Spitzer flat out states, “100% of women experience gynaecological problems. Many can’t conceive or give birth to stillborn children when they do.”

But the heart-breaking statistics were saved for the offspring.

  • 32 times higher risk of miscarriage and stillbirth compared to the normal German population chance of premature
  • 10% chance of physical deformities
  • 6% chance of being mentally handicapped
  • 23% chance of asthma
  • over 25% chance of allergies


These are truly grim statistics. So, why am I talking about these issues?

Because the world is heading down this path again. Doping is on the rise, and Anabolic Steroids are the leading category of positive tests in swimming from 2001-2013, with 93 violations. But perhaps even scarier than these swimming numbers are the estimated 500,000 high school students who are currently using anabolic steroids in the United States alone, many of them for cosmetic reasons only.

If something isn’t done, the world is heading for another dark period 20-40 years from now.


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