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In the late 1970s, I began to work as a sports psychologist with many elite athletes, some of whom went on to compete for our United States Olympic teams. Over the years, I kept hearing these athletes bitterly protesting the unfair advantage posed by the enormous change in the athletic prowess of the East German competitors, a change that observers assumed was due to some type of synthetic hormone.
"We would be in the locker room with these female swimmers," the U.S. athletes would tell me, "and we would have to check the symbol on the door to make sure we had the right bathrooms. These swimmers -- they were huge. They had shoulders like Dallas Cowboys, hair growing all over their bodies. It was quite startling," they reported. Many swimmers who competed internationally commented that it wasn't just the physical attributes of the East German women that was troubling, but also their aggressive behavior. "They would spit on the floor," one swimmer told me. "They would look at you like they wanted to rip your tongue out. It was all a bit surreal, and very intimidating." The more complaints we heard, the more we coaches and consultants told our American competitors to "just stay focused, don't get distracted, and swim your best race; don't worry about the other folks."
In 1984, when I was appointed to the first sports medicine group of the United States Olympic Committee, I learned more about this issue. There were more rumors, more anecdotes, more drug testing, and speculation about the East Germans, but no proof. In the late 1980s a group of my colleagues went to Germany and met with officials in Leipzig, at the most prominent sports institute for GDR training. It was there that some "informal" documents surfaced that provided evidence that there really was a secret system in place to dope many GDR athletes. None of us had any idea of the scope of this plan, nor did we know that the dam was about to break.
Years later, when I read about the work that former Olympian Brigitte Berendonk had done, documenting years of GDR doping, I became intrigued. Several of my colleagues encouraged me to call Brigitte and her husband, a highly respected molecular biologist named Werner Franke. After many conversations by phone, we finally met in Berlin. We agreed then that a psychologist, a molecular biologist, and a former Olympian who was now a schoolteacher might make a good team for the purpose of collecting and disseminating information as it came to light. More important, we agreed that the story had to be told.
The Big Oak Room
The Thirty-fourth Superior Criminal Court of the Berlin Landgericht is a massive neoclassical building of smog-stained limestone block. The structure dominates the normally quiet streets of the surrounding Tiergarten. But on the Wednesday morning of April 20, 1998, the street outside the courthouse was anything but quiet. Remote television vans top-heavy with antennae jostled for parking spots, and a cluster of frustrated camera crews and still photographers shuffled in the chill spring sun, grinding their cigarette butts on the marble entrance steps, much to the chagrin of the police officers guarding the ornate bronze doors. Although Germany's attention was focused on this courthouse, cameras and microphones were excluded from the proceedings taking place inside.
Room 700, a cavernous chamber with oak-paneled walls and heavy rafters, was filled to capacity. Presiding Judge Hansgeorg Bräutigam sat perched high above the other adjudicators in a wooden boxlike structure. Three judges and two laywomen jurors sat on the wide, varnished bench that stood between two incongruous wood-and-glass cages, bulletproof witness stands built in the 1950s when the fledgling West German government continued the Nazi war crimes trials begun at Nuremberg in 1946.
The six defendants in Room 700 today, however, sat at tables in open court. This trial was the first in a series scheduled over the next two years to determine guilt of a different magnitude, but similar in nature to that of the Nazis. Almost fifty years after the Nuremberg trials had begun, the cruelty of another totalitarian regime, the communist Deutsche Demokratische Republik, had now come before the bench of justice.
The charges of Criminal Case 28 Js 39/97 were Willful Bodily Harm inflicted by the six defendants on children, including the three witnesses in court today. The indicted men were two medical doctors, Dieter Binus and Bernd Pansold, along with four coaches and trainers, Volker Frischke, Dieter Krause, Rolf Gläser, and Dieter Lindemann. All had been part of the swimming program of the Sport Club SC Dynamo Berlin in the 1970s and 1980s, when the state-run organization was the hub of East Germany's seemingly invincible elite athletic juggernaut. The specific accusations were that they had intentionally administered anabolic steroids and testosterone to nineteen unwitting, underage female swimmers between 1975 and 1989 in order to secretly and illegally enhance their performance -- without regard for the well-documented serious health problems associated with these powerful drugs.
The three prosecution witnesses in this trial, Birgit Matz, Carola Nitschke-Beraktschjan, and Christiane Knacke-Sommer, sat with their attorneys at a separate table, behind the federal prosecutors. Twenty-five years earlier, they had been among the GDR's star teenage athletes, winning individual and team medals at the 1976 Montreal and 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Now in their late thirties and early forties, the women were tastefully dressed in the subdued corporate mode of the prosperous 1990s European Union.
But when the prosecutors called Christiane Knacke-Sommer to testify, her well-tailored suit could not hide her unnaturally wide shoulders and powerful arms. Like the other witnesses in the case, she had been a normal, healthy pubescent girl in the mid-1970s. Then her family sent her to live and train at SC Dynamo to compete for the greater glory of the state. Now, three decades later, she spoke of those years in an unusually deep voice that was tense, yet controlled.
Among the spectators, listening intently to the testimony and imagining themselves in Christiane Knacke-Sommer's place, were other former GDR athletes. Their names read like an Olympic lineup: Birgit Heike Matz, Ute Krause, Rica Reinisch, Birgit Heukrodt, Karen Känig, Andreas Krieger, Martina Gottschalt, Jutta Gottschalk. Some were unsure whether they should testify, whether they could testify, knowing that it would be not only painful, but also dangerous to do so. All were aware that they might be called upon to come forward.
A prosecutor patiently led Christiane through the early years of her childhood in a small Saxon town near Dresden, then shifted to the months when she was first installed in the "swim club" dormitory and began her training regimen. SC Dynamo was a closed complex, she testified. The young athletes training there were isolated from their families and the outside world. Separated from her parents, Christiane had turned thirteen while at SC Dynamo. After a thorough initial physical and psychological examination, the medical and athletic officials in charge of the establishment determined that she had potential as an Olympic-class butterfly swimmer. For the next two years, she steadily advanced in club competition, and was finally selected for the coveted elite group from which GDR Olympic team members would be chosen. This group of swimmers was the responsibility of Dr. Dieter Binus and trainer Rolf Gläser.
It was then that she was given the "little blue pills." Christiane's voice hardened as she continued her testimony. At first, she wasn't concerned about taking the small tablets, the innocent color of robin's eggs, which Rolf Gläser administered daily in strict four-week cycles. At the time, it did seem a bit odd that the trainer insisted that all the girls receiving these "special vitamins" swallow them in his presence. But Gläser dismissed the girls' concerns, pointing out that the "nutritional supplements" had cost the state too much to be wasted on careless adolescents who might forget to take them.
After two cycles, Christiane said, she felt the effect of the pills in both her performance and her body. While preparing for the European Championships in Sweden in 1977, Christiane was given a four-week course of both blue and pink tablets. Her qualifying time for the 100-meter butterfly race dropped dramatically. But she was startled by the equally dramatic and sudden increase of muscle mass in her upper body and arms. More alarming were the other physical changes. She developed serious acne. Her body hair increased dramatically, with pubic hair extending over her abdomen in a typical male pattern. Her voice broke into a gruff, bass timbre, like that of a young man. And her previously restrained libido, typical of girls in the puritanical GDR, flared wildly. These symptoms only worsened after Dr. Binus administered a painful injection in June 1978, just prior to the World Championships in West Berlin.
"Did defendant Gläser or defendant Binus ever tell you the blue pills were the anabolic steroid known as Oral-Turinabol?" the prosecutor asked. "They told us they were vitamin tablets," Christiane said, "just like they served all the girls with meals." "Did defendant Binus ever tell you the injection he gave was Depot-Turinabol?" "Never," Christiane said, staring at Binus until the slight, middle-aged man looked away. "He said the shots were another kind of vitamin."
"He never said he was injecting you with the male hormone testosterone?" the prosecutor persisted. "Neither he nor Herr Gläser ever mentioned Oral-Turinabol or Depot-Turinabol," Christiane said firmly. "Did you take these drugs voluntarily?" the prosecutor asked in a kindly tone. "I was fifteen years old when the pills started," she replied, beginning to lose her composure. "The training motto at the pool was, 'You eat the pills, or you die.' It was forbidden to refuse. But the pills and the shots, they destroyed me physically and emotionally."
Christiane raised her hand and pointed across the dark-paneled courtroom to the defendants' table. "They destroyed my body and my mind. They gave me those pills, the Oral-Turinabol, which made me crazy and ruined my body." Christiane glared at Dieter Binus; then her voice rose in fury. "They even poisoned my medal!" She suddenly stood and hurled to the floor the token of her supreme achievement, the bronze medal she had won swimming for East Germany in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. "It is tainted, poisoned with drugs and a corrupt system. It is worthless and a terrible embarrassment to all Germans."
Presiding Judge Hansgeorg Bräutigam gaveled the stunned courtroom to silence. But he did not admonish Christiane Knacke-Sommer. Everyone in Room 700 knew she had spoken the truth.
Neither spectators nor participants seemed to enjoy hearing the disturbing details of Christiane and the other former athletes' mistreatment at the hands of communist East Germany's vast and powerful sports apparatus, nor of the anguish they had suffered as a consequence. But the time was past due, as Christiane told the judge, for a "new honesty." And within weeks of the trial's completion, Christiane and her fellow witness Carola Nitschke-Beraktschjan, announced that they were returning all their competitive medals and requested that their names be removed from the official Olympic records.
As to the need for "a new honesty," no one in the courtroom could have agreed more fervently than Brigitte Berendonk, who was seated among the spectators. A tall woman in her late fifties, she still had the physique and carriage of a world-class athlete, as she had been. But few in attendance at the trial realized that this brave and resolute woman, more than any other individual, was responsible for bringing before the bar of justice over 400 doctors, coaches, trainers, and sports association officials of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik who had devised and administered the most massive and pervasive doping system in the history of competitive sport.