For many years, athletes from communist East Germany aroused wonder for their achievements at the Olympics and world championships. Their success was generally attributed to an extraordinarily rigorous training regime that many condemned for turning human beings into machines. Only later did it become known that success was helped by drugs, which in many cases damaged the health of the athletes. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports that the two men mostly responsible for the drug program are now standing trial in Berlin.
Munich, 18 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- East German runners, swimmers, ice skaters and other athletes won more than 160 Olympic gold medalsa feat which many found astonishing for a nation of only 17 million people. Many other golds, silvers, and bronzes were won at world championships.
Although credit was generally given to the extremely demanding training regime the East Germans went through, many Western athletes suspected that anabolic steroid drugs also played a role. But only after the collapse of the communist government did the enormous extent of athletic drug use become clear.
In Berlin, the two men most responsible for administering steroids to women athletes are now on trial for the damage caused by their program. Both are accused of complicity in doing bodily harm to 142 women athletes by administering male hormones to them.
The chief accused is 75-year-old Manfred Ewald, former president of the East German Gymnastic and Sport association. For almost 30 years, it was his responsibility to gain the gold medals for East Germany that the regime believed would enhance communisms image in the world.
The indictment against Ewald says his policies ensured that women athletes--many of them teenagers--were given health-damaging anabolic steroids. The women were not told what they were taking, and many have since suffered symptoms ranging from infertility to an unpleasant deepening of their voices.
The other defendant is 66-year-old Manfred Hoeppner, a medical doctor who headed an organization with the ambiguous title "Working Group on Supporting Means." Hoeppner has told the court that "supporting means" was the official East German euphemism for the doping program.
A Berlin Justice Ministry spokesman (unnamed) says the two men were chiefly responsible for the program, although thousands of coaches, trainers and others were involved at a lower level.
"Hoeppner and Ewald are accused of complicity in bodily injury in 142 cases. They are held responsible for having systematically given male hormones to minors among the sportswomen. The sportswomen are still suffering from the effects."
The trial began earlier this month, but was suspended when Ewald said that his psychological state was too fragile for him to appear in court. His claims were dismissed this week after hospital tests, and the trial resumed on Tuesday (May 16).
The witnesses include many of the women who suffered from the drugs program. Some of the 142 women named in the indictment say they suffered serious health problems, including infertility and miscarriage. Others experienced traumatic development of masculine characteristics, such as excessive body hair, deep voices, and atrophied breasts.
One of the 142 women is 38-year-old Carola Beraktschjan, who won a gold medal the 100-meter breaststroke at the 1977 European swimming championships. She was then 15. She told prosecutors she was only 13 when officials first started giving her pills, which they told her were vitamins.
Before the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Beraktschjan says, she became ill with a liver complaint, but continued to take the pills. In 1978, her muscles swelled and she began to put on weight. Frightened, she refused to take any more of the pills.
Talking to reporters at the court hearing, Beraktschjan said: "We were just vehicles chosen to prove that socialism was better than capitalism. What happened to our bodies was secondary to what the regime considered a political mission."
The medical doctor, Manfred Hoeppner, does not deny that drugs were administered but he argues that it was legal under East German laws of the time. Therefore, he says, there is no legal basis to prosecute him now.
Hoeppner said for most athletes, the use of support drugs was worthwhile. He acknowledged that some had suffered what he called "disastrous consequences" and asked them to accept his apologies.
Hoeppners argument that what he did was legal under his countrys laws has been used by many other former East German officials as justification for their acts. In some cases the argument has been accepted, but in many others it has been rejected.
The other accused, Manfred Ewald, has declined to make any comment on the charges. Ewald is considered the more senior of the accused because he was also a member of the Central Committee of the East German Communist Party and politically responsible for the program.
German commentators say the trial is important because it is the first time that any court has examined the responsibility of those responsible for the experiment on human beings. The German Justice Ministry emphasizes that the Ewald and Hoeppner are not accused of political offenses but rather of complicity to do bodily harm.