Performance-Enhancing Drugs: "East German Doping Victims Die 10 to 12 Years Earlier"

By Oliver Fritsch

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. This is the English translation of the original German version. Lesen Sie diesen Text auf Deutsch.

ZEIT ONLINE: Professor Freyberger, you conduct research into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in East Germany. Why is that an important issue?

Harald Freyberger: We're talking here about a significant group of victims that many are unaware of, a group that is afflicted by immense psychological and physical suffering. And both the group and the adversity they face is growing.

ZEIT ONLINE: What have you learned?

Freyberger: On average, victims of East German doping die 10 to 12 years earlier than the rest of the population. And here's another alarming statistic: A victim of East German doping falls ill 2.7 times as often, and for psychological illnesses, we have calculated a factor of 3.2. Against this background, calls to legalize performance-enhancing drugs are naïve and irresponsible.

ZEIT ONLINE: Doping has taken place, and continues to take place, in a lot of countries. What is so special about East Germany?

Freyberger: The magnitude in East Germany was likely unique. Unbeknownst to them, the athletes were given heavy anabolic steroids along with sex and growth hormones, often in extremely high doses. For many of the victims, the consequences have been dramatic, some of which are only appearing now, decades later.

ZEIT ONLINE: There are files assembled by the East German secret police, the Stasi, proving that doping took place, but it's not always possible to determine who received how many tablets and injections and when they took them. Nor is it always easy to determine what was given to the athletes. Given that background, how is it possible to arrive at scientifically sound conclusions?

Freyberger: In individual cases, it isn't, in fact, always possible to confirm all the details. Not everyone was affected to the same degree. But on the whole, it is possible to ascertain beyond any doubt the presence of serious health consequences. All systems of the body are affected: the heart, kidneys, skin, bones and sexual organs. Many victims suffer from depression or eating disorders and roughly every third is traumatized. In addition, outrageous doses of pain medication were administered in East Germany. That makes possible extremely intense – and thus damaging – training sessions. We have also observed social failure, occupational limitations and poverty. In the final analysis, sports in East Germany substantially worsened the lives of many.

Doping in East Germany - »We Were Told They Were Vitamin Supplements« As a young woman, Petra Ostrowski belonged to the canoe division of a Berlin sports club. Unbeknownst to her, she was given performance enhancing drugs. She's a victim of systemic GDR doping and she feels abandoned. © Foto: Christiane Wittenbecher for ZEIT ONLINE

ZEIT ONLINE: In its eagerness to win as many medals as possible, the East German regime even resorted to giving performance-enhancing drugs to children. Without their knowledge, of course, nor that of their parents.

Freyberger: That's the worst part about it. In extreme cases, the children were only 7 years old. In some places, this chemical abuse was combined with psychological or sexual abuse at the hands of doctors or trainers. Some victims have spoken of violence. Some of them didn't get any support from their parents, which multiplied their suffering. And then there is the issue of eating. Many gymnasts, for example, were pressured by their trainers to lose weight while weightlifters had to gain weight. Those were all encroachments into the natural developmental process.

ZEIT ONLINE: You also conduct research into second generation victims. Some researchers doubt that health problems triggered by performance-enhancing drugs can be passed down to one's children – unless the doping took place during pregnancy. What is your view?

Freyberger: Such objections tend to come from biologists and pharmacologists. But they are overlooking something. The sciences of psychology and forensic psychiatry recognize the phenomenon of transgenerational trauma transmission: Traumatic experiences can be passed along to the children. From research conducted into other victim groups that suffered a similar fate, we know that the transgenerational transmission of trauma leads to the handing down of specific symptoms and can go hand in hand with significant risks – not just psychological and social, but also genetic.

ZEIT ONLINE: Many illnesses cannot be cured. Many doping victims can no longer work full time, or they can't work at all, even though they haven't even turned 50 yet. What can be done to help them?

Freyberger: Medical treatment and therapy needs to be improved. Doctors need additional training, as do psychiatrists. Only very few are familiar with the issue. Sometimes, patients must travel 500 kilometers by train to find a good doctor. And aside from a few exceptions, politicians have left the victims to their own devices. Lawmakers issued one-time damage payments of 10,500 euros to many victims. That is a good start, but when compared to the damage done, it is only a symbolic gesture.

ZEIT ONLINE: What role does research play?

Freyberger: Research helps achieve the knowledge that is necessary for political decisions. Thus far, science has neglected the issue. Last fall, we completed the first quantitative study for which we surveyed several hundred victims. Now we know quite a bit more, about the kinds of harm inflicted or which sports were particularly affected. But that is just a beginning.

ZEIT ONLINE: You have experience with other groups of victims as well. To which group can doping victims best be compared.

Freyberger: With East German political prisoners. Only about one in five from that group has applied for compensation. By comparison, between 1,500 and 2,000 victims have registered with the Doping Victim Aid Organization in Berlin. But we believe between 10,000 and 15,000 people were affected. That means that up to 13,000 people haven't come forward.

ZEIT ONLINE: You write that those responsible for East Germany's doping practices never talk. But also that many family members don't want to hear about the health problems suffered by the victims. Is talking about doping taboo?

Freyberger: Yes. Many people identify with sports. It is idealized, as we most recently saw during the Winter Olympics. There is no culture of criticism in sports.

ZEIT ONLINE: That idealization was stronger in East Germany than in the West. Sports was one of the few areas where the East was superior to the West.

Freyberger: Many East German citizens viewed reunification as a colonialization of their country. Now, it looks like they now want to bad-mouth their sporting tradition as well. But East Germany burned up and wore down its athletes.

ZEIT ONLINE: Many of the victims don't want to talk either. Why not?

Freyberger: They're ashamed, they're afraid or they feel intimidated. Nobody likes to dwell on suffering and victims experience it all anew when they talk about it. And many don't even know that the sport they participated in as a child and teenager is responsible for their suffering. Plus: Many former East German sports functionaries are still alive or may even be in positions of responsibility. I remember one former track-and-field athlete, who is seriously ill today. He read in the newspaper that his coach, who used to give him pills and who carries a significant degree of responsibility for his fate, is active again in China. The athlete was retraumatized.

ZEIT ONLINE: How can talking about it help at all?

Freyberger: There is clear evidence that people can be very effectively treated. But that only works if patients accept the past as a part of their identity and address it openly. Plus, our society has to listen to the victims to dignify them. They are the weakest among us.

With additional reporting by Stefanie Sippel

Translated by Charles Hawley

Doping in East Germany - The Forgotten Victims ZEIT ONLINE reporter Oliver Fritsch comments in a video op-ed on the treatment of East German doping victims. © Foto: Claudia Bracholdt

ZEIT ONLINE editor Oliver Fritsch comments on the treatment of the victims of East German doping in a video editorial.