Runner's Web

Athletics in the GDR

Introduction: This is the second in a series on athletics in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) written by Philip Hersh for the Chicago Tribune.
They are reposted here with permission.
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Part II: Into the forbidden basement--a visit to the research institute where the sophisticated training and doping methods were developed.

Twelve years ago, not long before what would be East Germany's final Olympics as an independent nation, the country's sports authorities ran a tour for Western journalists. The point of the tour was to convince skeptical Westerners that the sports system behind East Germany's "Miracle Machine," as a Canadian author had called it, was based entirely on sophisticated talent identification, experienced coaches, good sports science and motivated athletes.

During the tour's stop at the East German College for Physical Culture in Leipzig, the journalists vainly insisted they weren't getting the whole picture. As the dog-and-pony show continued, the questions were about what wasn't being shown, the implication being the missing element was work with performance-enhancing drugs.

"Quite a number of people think we show them only 50 percent of the college, and some people think there is another college underground where we hide the secrets," the college's scientific research director said. "You may go to the basement if you want."

Twelve years later, not long before a unified German team will compete in the 2000 Sydney Olympics that open Friday, this anecdote was recounted to a top official of what has become the unified Germany's sports research institute, the Institute for Applied Training Science (IAT). The story drew a smile from Hartmut Sandner, who has worked the research institute since 1980.

"I cannot imagine that a foreign journalist from the USA got permission to visit the former research institute part," Sandner said. "That would have been a great exception."

"It was an arranged tour," Sandner was told. "Then certainly it was the campus across the field here," he said. "There you probably visited some nice gyms and the library and something like that."

That indeed had been the case. The real basement, in the old sports medicine building of what then was the State Research Institution for Physical Education, eventually would be visited through its meticulous files when they were opened after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

What is now the IAT had been the inner sanctum of the system that transformed the former East Germany, a country of 16.6 million people, into a sporting power to rival the Soviet Union and the United States, with populations then 18 times bigger.

It was in Leipzig that the highly advanced research into sports science would include what the East Germans called "supporting means"--giving banned and potentially dangerous performance-enhancing drugs to athletes, often without their knowledge, often beginning in their preteen years.

At the recent East German doping trials, former athletes have testified to the damaging effects these drugs have had on their own health and the likelihood they also caused birth defects in some of their children. Given such horrifying evidence, it seems surprising that the institute that catalyzed and symbolized such abuse has continued to exist, even with a radically altered mission controlled and entirely financed by the unified Germany's Interior Ministry.

"The old West Germany in the late 1980s would have liked to have such an institute," IAT acting director Arndt Pfuetzner said. "Their alternative was to create regional Olympic training centers in the west, but since they were planned regionally they could not substitute for a central institute.

"What these training centers did was more day-to-day dealing with individual athletes. More basic research that could be commonly applied was not done there.

"The more progressive powers in the old West Germany tried to retain this institute in this period of upheaval. Then it became an integral part of the German unity contract."

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Eva Schmierer confirmed the IAT's further existence was guaranteed in the unification contract worked out between the former German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, and the Federal Republic of Germany, what West Germany was called before and after reunification.

"The Interior Ministry granted the IAT's further existence, not including the doping part, because we recognized the technical and scientific support it could provide were of specific importance to athletes," Schmierer said.

Many other nations have such centers, although their emphasis is more on training than applied research. The U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs has similar aspects--perhaps too similar, if there is any truth to recent allegations by former USOC doping control chief Wade Exum, who said superiors asked him to develop doping methods and ways to avoid detection.

The IAT was closed for a year after German reunification. It reopened Jan. 1, 1992, on a significantly diminished scale. A staff of 650, including 35 who worked on sports medicine, was cut to 85. Two employees are from the west, a scientist and the administrative head.

Computers and other high-tech resources have diminished some of the manpower needs. Many people had used handwriting or typewriters to record research results and keep secret files.

"All the people working here now had nothing to do with doping," said Pfuetzner, who has worked there 26 years.

Previously spread over three buildings and a testing hall, the IAT has one building and a testing hall. Its annual budget is down to about $4 million. Funds were almost unlimited during East German's sports heydays in the 1970s and 1980s.

"This institute will still be needed in 10 or 20 years," Pfuetzner said. "Whether it will still be here, I don't know."

The irony was that the East German government turned Leipzig from a mere physical education college into a Machiavellian research institute purely out of a desire to show up West Germany at its own postwar coming-out party, the 1972 Munich Olympics. When whitewater canoeing was introduced at those Olympics, the East Germans built an exact replica of the $4 million West German slalom course. East Germany won all four whitewater gold medals.

"The first task of East German national teams, even if they didn't win a medal, was to be better than the West German teams," Sandner said.

To that end the East Germans were brilliantly creative as well as criminally unscrupulous.

Training for the 1968 Olympics at 7,400-foot-high Mexico City showed how altitude training could benefit performance even at sea level. That led East Germany to devise the first hyperbaric chamber, now commonly used by athletes who want to simulate altitude training. It was also a cost-saving device, sparing the country from the expense of sending, housing and feeding athletes at high-altitude training camps.

"EPO wasn't known then," Pfuetzner said jokingly, referring to the blood-doping drug that mimics the effect of altitude training.

In 1967 the East Germans built in Leipzig what was believed to be the first sophisticated treadmill, which still exists in the basement (where else?) of the old sports medicine building. The treadmill has been further modified and advanced for current use.

East German researchers made written notes or video recordings of every major international competition, creating an unparalleled library on sports mechanics. If one of their wrestlers was to meet a Russian, the East Germans could make a move-by-move analysis of the Russian's tactics and movements and program it into wrestling robots that simulated an opponent's moves.

More than 400 members of the old staff of 650 worked in 10- to 20-person groups specializing in the science and mechanics of a specific Olympic sport. Psychologists worked on team dynamics. The department of sports politics dealt with matters such as the 1984 Soviet bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics and the indoctrination of athletes to the Communist party line.

The now-suppressed department of endocrinology had 18 members working in doping science. It developed such things as the steroid androstendione in a nasal spray, a form that made it more rapidly effective and more difficult to detect.

Most former East German elite athletes would visit Leipzig four to five times a year for performance analysis. Today such visits are far less frequent, partly because athletes who make their living from sport have a much more crowded competitive calendar.

The IAT currently works with 16 Olympic sports. It has a partnership with the Berlin Science and Development Center for Sports Equipment, allowing for cooperation in the design of new equipment and the use of new equipment designed elsewhere. The IAT helped former East German Gunda Niemann, the world's greatest speedskater since reunification, in her difficult adaptation to the clap skate.

"Our greatest achievement from all these years was to transform the old institute, or at least parts of it, into the new society," Pfuetzner said. "Now society is structured in a different way, and there is really no room for [the institute].

"To put it negatively, the universities in the new Germany have more or less the whole claim to sports science, which usually is limited to sports medicine. No one outside of this institution is working with the applied science of training methods."

In East Germany the IAT provided the scientific basis of a holistic system that took athletes from age 7 in some sports, such as figure skating and gymnastics, to age 32 or 33.

Sandner, director of the IAT's department of information and documentation, said sports scientists from around the world have been told they can have access to much of the old and new research but not training methodology or information about particular athletes now covered by privacy laws. To erase these names from typewritten documents, he said, would require more manpower than the IAT has.

There are 120,000 items in a database on the Web site: Sandner said few are availing themselves of documents produced by a system he clearly feels has unfairly been demonized.

"Everybody is speaking about the great secrets of East Germany sports science but these people are not trying to look at it," he said.

"I consider the secret to be the system. Talent identification, training of youngsters--that is the secret. One part certainly was medical support by doping."

Much of the doping records, kept by the army and the secret police (Stasi), has been uncovered and published by West German scientist Werner Franke. Some countries, including the U.S., have requested the International Olympic Committee strip medals from athletes whose names were on the doping lists.

The IOC has refused, which is not surprising. IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch gave an Olympic Order prize to former East German sports chief Manfred Ewald, recently found guilty of systematic doping.

While doping research was done in Leipzig, the results were applied and administered locally, by coaches and doctors at the 21 elite sports clubs of the old East Germany.

Asked what percentage of East German success owed to doping, Pfuetzner said, "It depends on the individual sports. You can't generalize. An integral part of doping was to enable athletes to have better recovery time, so you could practice a lot but feel OK."

Such recovery capacity could be measured on the treadmill in the basement.

On the wall behind it is a colorful, bucolic scene, as if to give the athlete a feeling of training in the woods. Outside the walls the institute's drab buildings hunker against Leipzig's grayness.

"The main difference between this and East German times is the picture was black-and-white then," Sandner said. "With a high degree of red that is."

The medals of the `Miracle Machine':

East Germany and West Germany sent separate teams to the Olympic Games for 20 years beginning in 1968. During that time, the East Germans won nearly three times as many gold medals as West Germany in Games that were not boycotted. Medal breakdowns for East and West Germany, U.S.S.R. and U.S., ranked by number of gold medals:

1. U.S. 45 28 34 107
2. U.S.S.R. 29 32 30 91
5. East Germany 9 9 7 25
8. West Germany 5 11 10 26

1. U.S.S.R. 50 27 22 99
2. U.S. 33 31 30 94
3. East Germany 20 23 23 66
4. West Germany 13 11 16 40

1. U.S.S.R. 49 41 35 125
2. East Germany 40 25 25 90
3. U.S. 34 35 25 94

West Germany was one of 65 nations to boycott the Moscow Games.

East Germany was one of 14 nations to boycott the Los Angeles Games.

1. U.S.S.R. 55 31 46 132
2. East Germany 37 35 30 102
3. U.S. 36 37 27 100
4. West Germany 11 14 15 40

A combined German team began competing in the 1992 Barcelona Games.
1. United Team* 45 38 28 111
2. U.S. 37 34 37 108
3. Germany 33 21 28 82

1. U.S. 44 32 25 101
2. Russia 26 21 16 63

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