Faust's Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine


August 14, 2001


Most people would like to believe that the Olympic Games are a true test of an individual's prowess, one's willingness to sacrifice years perfecting skills that would allow the athlete to become the best in the world. Cheating with drugs, however, has been a feature of the games since a marathoner collapsed from a combination of strychnine and brandy in 1904. Still, suspicion that teams from entire countries might participate in mass deception did not arise until East German athletes began setting dramatic records in the 1970s.

In Faust's Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine, author Steven Ungerleider, PhD, a sports psychologist who has worked with elite athletes since the 1970s, documents the lengths that the German Democratic Republic (GDR) went to in order to reverse their standing in Olympic Games and World Championships. Until 1968, the West German athletes regularly outperformed those from East Germany. Three games and 12 years later, athletes from the GDR won 176 medals in Montreal and 19 in Innsbruck -- dwarfing the output of the athletes from the other half of Germany, who won 39 and 10, respectively.

Although there were suspicions that the athletes from the GDR were using performance-enhancing drugs, it has taken a long time to obtain the documentation and proof of such use. Faust's Gold follows the progression of the revelations, from mere suspicion to the discovery of a master plan formulated with the full knowledge of the East German government and the complicity of sports physicians and trainers at the highest echelon.

Ungerleider, who has covered the last 7 Olympiads for a variety of media, is well able to chronicle the East German machine from the 1950s, when the state made a commitment to dominate sport, to the political collapse of the country in the 1980s. The narrative also benefits from Ungerleider's friendship with Brigitte Berendonk, a former Olympian, and her husband, Werner Franke, a molecular biologist. These two were the real heroes who led the fight to document the incredible scope of the GDR's plan to dominate world athletics and to bring to trial the key officials.

Berendonk, born in East Germany, was invited to become a part of the elite GDR swimming team training at Leipzig while in her early teens. The government took good care of successful athletes and their families, and the enticement was obvious. Berendonk was different, though, because her parents were both well educated and her father was a physician. Shortly after that invitation, her father had an opportunity to practice in West Germany and the entire family moved.

Ungerleider reports that when Berendonk next saw her fellow swimmers from the GDR in the Mexico Olympics of 1968, she was appalled by their physical changes. She first spoke out about doping at the 1972 Olympics when she was badly defeated by the same athletes. Her comments were felt to represent those of a "poor loser" and she was ridiculed. But the memory and humiliation of these events spurred her on for more than 30 years. Her husband has pursued the story with equal vigor and was able to find state documents that confirmed the doping practices.

Ungerleider looks at the East German state's overwhelming involvement in doping practices, examining the archives of the GDR's secret police, the STASI, which detailed the activities of the Deutsche Turn and Sportbund (DTSB). The DTSB supervised all of the individual athletic associations, each of which had its own sports physician. The chief physician of the sports program was Dr. Manfred Hoppner, whose force and complicity behind the systematic doping program was made clear to all when he sold many of the STASI files to the weekly German magazine Stern.

Ungerleider also documents the effects on athletes who were the "innocent" victims of the doping practices. He notes that physical changes were most marked in female athletes; in women, it takes only small amounts of androgenic-anabolic steroids to alter muscle structure, deepen voices, cause male pattern hair growth, and change genitalia. The female athletes were the most vocal in expressing their concern and outrage at what had been done to them. Several offspring of GDR athletes reported clubbed feet and early heart disease. Ovarian cysts, infertility, increased menstrual discomfort, and a wide variety of other symptoms are attributed to the administration of these drugs

Ungerleider further notes that not all athletes were concerned by the revelations. Several athletes reportedly said, "Who cares! We won, didn't we! We all knew we were taking something." As the revelations continue to appear about the use of performance-enhancing drugs by current Olympians, these comments need to be remembered.

Equally chilling are the responses that Ungerleider culls from sports physicians involved. In Faust's Gold, some have stated, "We were only following orders." Others justify their participation by saying that the steroids were not given to enhance performance, that they were given to help the athletes recover from arduous workouts. But the trainers and physicians were all aware of the side effects and toxicities. Indeed, it is clear that they knowingly caused bodily harm to the children and athletes who trusted them.

Faust's Gold concludes by outlining broader concerns about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the United States: the apparent endorsement of androstenedione by baseball player Mark McGwire, the supplementation of over-the-counter nutritional additives with anabolic steroids, the tremendous financial stakes that corporate America, including NBC and Olympic sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Nike, have in athletic competition. Indeed, as more and more revelations about drug use in sport continue to appear, Steven Ungerleider's well-written saga could not be more timely.


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