Forgotten ex-East German athletes ruined by unwitting doping

BERLIN - Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany's leaders have failed hundreds of ex-athletes whose health was ruined by former East Germany's doping programme, says an ex-sprinter trying to help them.

Ines Geipel is president of the Berlin-based Help for Victims of Doping (DOH), which offers support to former athletes now suffering from failing health due to the steroids they unknowingly took while competing for the East German state.

Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But a quarter of a century after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the athletes hurt by the former state's doping programme have largely been abandoned, says Geipel.

"The situation isn't just bad, it's a catastrophe," she told AFP.

"There is no support from the politicians and absolutely nothing on the side of the sport."

The 54-year-old has first-hand experience of the effects of systematic doping.

She was part of the SC Motor Jena team which set a club world record for the women's 4x100m relay in an incredible time of 42.20 seconds in 1984.

She later defected to West Germany and in 2005 asked her name be removed from the record books, as she knew she was a product of regime which systematically doped its athletes.

Geipel says 700 ex-sportsmen and women athletes, many of whom won Olympic or world titles for the GDR state, have contacted the DOH in the last year alone.

According to various estimates, up to a total of 10,000 former East German athletes may be affected.

In 2002, nearly 200 ex-athletes, who are recognised by the German state as having been victims of doping, each received a one-off payment of 9,600 euros (S$15,400).

For many others there's been little relief.

'Gynaecological issues'

Geipel gave the example of a ex-gymnast in her early 50s with poor mobility who asked the DOH for financial help installing a home stairlift.

"They are still young, middle 40s or in their early 50s - that's not when a life is normally at its end," she said.

The majority are damaged after having taken the GDR-manufactured anabolic steroid Oral Turinabol for years, which in many cases coaches said were simply vitamins or stonewalled athletes' inquiries.

The drug boosted performance and slashed recovery times, but its side-effects were disastrous.

"For those who took male-hormone drugs, typical problems are massive organ damage to the heart, kidneys and liver," said Geipel.

"There are also many gynaecological issues, disfunctional ovaries, miscarriages, children born with disabilities, things like club feet or crippled hands," she added.

The drugs hastened the end for many.

A recent example is former Olympic weightlifting medalist and world recordholder Gerd Bonk, who died at 63 last month after suffering from diabetes, liver failure and extensive organ damage.

He won 15 Olympic or world championship medals for the GDR in the 1970s, but had to retire from his job as a car mechanic aged just 37 due to poor health.

"I once had a world record for weightlifting, perhaps I'll now set a world record for dialysis," he once joked.

"His death is a reality with a symbolic significance," said Geipel after Bonk once summed up his situation as "Burned by the GDR, forgotten by unified Germany."

Then there is the startling example of former European champion shot-putter Andreas Krieger, who needed a sex change operation after retiring in 1990 because of the levels of male hormones in his body.

Due to the steroids he took, Krieger started showing male characteristics by the age of 18 and eventually had a sex-change operation and changed his name to Andreas.

Geipel says there must be a pension and special clinic for those affected, a plea she took in a letter to Germany President Joachim Gauck.

"It would be a symbolic gesture, in the year when we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, for him to host a group of victims.

"But it won't happen, I believe (his excuse was) due to a question of time."