After defeating Hitler’s Nazi Germany in World War II, the victorious Allies divided the country. East Germany (or the German Democratic Republic—GDR) became part of the Eastern Bloc, dominated by the communist United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). West Germany had a capitalist economy and became an ally of the U.S. and Western European nations. For many reasons, the GDR economy struggled mightily. So many of its citizens tried to defect to West Germany that the GDR had to build the Berlin Wall to imprison its people in the city of Berlin, which was located inside the GDR.
By the 1960s, the GDR government had decided that the small nation would make its mark in athletics. Achieving success in this realm would signal to the entire world the superiority of its communist system. A secret government law was enacted specifying that doping substances had to be a key part of athletes’ training. Coaches and doctors became part of an institutionalized system of doping designed to give GDR athletes a competitive advantage. The government recruited athletes at a young age. They placed the most promising ones into a system of rigorous training and significant doping. Most often, athletes were given an anabolic steroid—Oral-Turinabol—in the form of little blue and pink pills, which were handed out like candy. Athletes were required to take the pills and forbidden from talking about them.
The doctors and coaches told the athletes that the pills were “vitamins.” It is likely that some of the athletes, especially the youngest ones, believed this to be true…at least for a time. But the large majority came to know, as the coaches and doctors already did, that these were performance-enhancing drugs and had a major impact on the athletes’ bodies. Male athletes gained muscle mass, enjoyed increased stamina, and recovered from exertion more quickly. Female athletes experienced similar but even greater effects.
From 1968 to the late 1980s, the GDR doped some 9,000 athletes and gained many successes in international athletic competitions, particularly the Olympics. The GDR women’s swim team in the 1968 Olympics enjoyed the most amazing (and suspicious) success. As usual, the U.S. had a very strong team, but the muscular GDR women won eleven of thirteen gold medals in the competition. Indeed, one of the greatest upsets in Olympic swimming history came when the U.S. women’s team won its only gold medal at the Montreal games. The U.S. team upset the heavily-favored East Germans in the 4×100-meter relay with Jill Sterkel taking the lead for the Americans in the third leg of the race and Shirley Babashoff (who would have won multiple golds absent GDR doping) sprinting home for the win. The U.S. team shattered the world record by four seconds.
Although most of the male and female GDR athletes knew that they were engaged in illegal doping that gave them an unfair advantage. Many of them had strong misgivings about the practice, although they generally followed instructions from their coaches and doctors. One swimmer later said: “The training motto at the pool was, ‘You eat the pills, or you die.’ It was forbidden to refuse.”
But some did resist. One female swimmer, who gained 45 pounds of muscle, said:
I just woke one day and said this feels like sh*t. It’s wrong, it’s cheating, and I feel horrible. When I said no, no more pills, no more needles, the coaches freaked out. They kept trying to convince me to dope, but I refused. Shortly afterward, my performances fell behind my other training partners, so they moved me into the lazy group. I was no longer a member of the GDR elite. There was fighting and arguing and it got ugly, so in 1979, right before [the] Moscow [Olympics], I just quit. Hung up my suit.
I knew we were on something. Everybody was getting enormous, and we are talking about young women, teenagers, here; so we all knew that we were being doped, but we were forbidden to talk to anyone or to each other. It was like prison. I got called before the Central Committee, the big STASI [the GDR’s secret police force] honchos; they wanted me to take the vitamins and keep swimming; but I told them forget it, it was wrong and dangerous. They thought I was nuts, so they cut me loose. I also believe that some of the young girls loved the way their swim times dropped and their recovery from hard workouts, so they didn’t complain; they rather enjoyed it.
Olympic doping authorities finally caught up to the GDR practices in the late 1980s. Doctors and coaches were intimately involved in the doping system, even though they knew of the unfortunate side effects that Oral-Turnibol had on the athletes. Men’s penises shrank. Women’s clitorises grew. Women found hair growing in unusual amounts in unusual places. Women’s voices also dropped and they became more aggressive. Athletes of both genders suffered terrible acne, liver damage, heart disease, and various cancers. Many women suffered infertility, and many who were able to have children gave birth to babies with significant birth defects. These adverse effects were known by the doctors and coaches. One doctor said (many years later): “I can only repeat my profound regret. I was far too obedient. We were pressured into producing for the political leadership. We had to create international champions for the glory of the communist sporting machine.”