German Sport Airs Its Dirty Laundry At Last


For decades, two Cold War powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were the behemoths that dominated events around the globe. The superpowers were both convinced that they had right and history on their side. Both believed the other was monstrous.

That belief licensed interventions in non-aligned powers around the world and proxy conflicts. It led to an arms build-up – and to a political justification of that policy, MAD (the doctrine of mutually assured destruction).

Germany was the most important site of confrontation between the two powers. Divided Berlin was the microcosm of the broader Cold War.

The city’s two halves symbolised the two warring powers. Even today, once-communist East Berlin is stuffed with grey tower blocks. Meanwhile, the skyscrapers of West Germany’s signature corporations – think Siemens or Deutsche Bank – dominate Kurfurstendamm, the shopping district in the west of the city.

The contest between the superpowers dominated every aspect of life in Germany for decades. The spy services (the Stasi in the East, the Bundesnachrichten Dienst in the West) dispatched agents and double agents to ferret out each other’s secrets. On the economic front, wheezy East German Trabants lost the propaganda battle to Volkswagen Beetles and BMW sports cars.

The German Democratic Republic’s sporting image has long been shaped by images of the steroids-driven East German Olympic contingents of the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet, more than two decades after it ended, a more nuanced view of Cold War culture is emerging in reunified Germany. New claims by German sports historians indicate the extent to which the propaganda battle led both states to violate the rules of fair play – and sometimes the rights of German sportspeople.

While East German doping has been known about for decades, the extent to which West German counterparts also doped emerged this August. The study – commissioned by the German Institute of Sport in 2008 but kept secret until now – has been leaked to Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ).

The study found that West Germany developed a “systematic” state-funded doping program in the 1970s, after the Federal Institute of Sport was founded. The goal of the program was ostensibly proving that a drug did not effect athletic performance, the paper says. But if it turned out a drug did improve performance, then it “was quickly put to use”. Almost every class of West German sportspeople took the drug, the paper says:

“Anabolic steroids were particularly popular among athletes, while footballers took first pervitin and then other amphetamines."

Meanwhile, West Germany’s government doping program was administering synthetic drug agent EPO in the late 1980s, well before it became widely used among professional cyclists, the SZ says. The Institute of Sport’s EPO “project” continued after reunification – and it’s unclear when it ended.

West German politicians knew about the drugs program, and may have covertly encouraged it, the Munich morning daily says. A year prior to the Munich Olympics, a German minister ordered the Institute of Sport to produce medals. When the scientist asked how, the minister replied: “No matter how”.  

West Germany’s drug program did deliver medals. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, for example, West Germany finished fourth on the medal table. Well ahead of Australia, which scored just one silver medal. Now, the Humboldt study finds that West German athletes injected one drug cocktail, named after rower Peter-Michael Kolbe, over 1,200 times at those Olympics.

The Humboldt University study on professional doping does not cover the post-reunification period.

That is because the sports historians had to cease their research, due to opposition from sports associations, according to the report summary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Moreover, the historians were reportedly obliged to destroy archival sources as they conducted their research.

Even after reunification, German sporting associations punished whistleblowers that spoke out against professional doping, sports medicine expert Hansjörg Kofink tells the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

“Former professional cyclist Jörg Paffrath described in detail the drugs that were around in professional cycling just before [alleged drugs cheat]Jan Ullrich won the Tour [de France]in 1997,” Konfink said.

“What happened to him? He received a life ban from the Federation of German Cyclists due to his doping confession and the damage [he had done]to the image of the German Republic.”  

All this goes to show that Germany’s medal-winning “sports medicine” programs behove greater investigation, comments the Berliner Tagesspiegel:

“It’s well known that Freiburg sports doctors were supplying the ‘rocket fuel’ that powered Team Telekom’s [Tour] success in cycling well into the 2000s,” the paper asserts. “Who would believe that this know-how simply vanished overnight?”

Elsewhere in Europe, the report has drawn comparisons between the doping program of West Germany, which reportedly involved administering steroids to athletes as young as 14, and a notably grisly epoch of German medical research:

“The report reveals a dark and grim chapter [of history]that recalls in some senses the experiments carried out by doctors under the Nazi dictatorship,” Spanish daily El País comments.

The leaking of the doping report comes just months after reports that West German and Swiss pharma companies tested new drug treatments on thousands of East German citizens. And they come after months of drugs confessions from some of recent history’s most renowned sports heroes, such as cycling star Lance Armstrong.

While the Humboldt University’s report’s findings have disappointed many Germans, former East German athletes have welcomed the exposure of state-funded doping in West Germany.

“The East versus West dynamic is now over,” former East German biathlon champion Christian Schenk is quoted as saying. “Now it has been shown that sport was used politically by both sides."

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.

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