Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Photo: German Bundesarchive

So, in my recent reading for school, I have been reading a critique of what is called "high performance sport' culture, of which gymnastics is certainly a part. 

One of the chapters is devoted to the German Democratic republic's sports training system.  Athletes in this time were precious to socialist systems.  Their success was one way for nations like Russia, the GDR and later Romania to prove that their system was superior in the "war against capitalist imperialism". 

Karin Janz in the era before the 'report' which changed life for GDR Gymnasts.

Nations like the GDR poured huge amounts of money into producing super athletes who could prove this, and employed thousands of researchers, technicians and medical and training staff to devote knowledge on how best to produce these athletes.

This, of course was the era when anabolic steroids came into common usage.  In 1977 a  summary report was released in the GDR by the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) that told of the success doctors and trainers had experiences using steroids, noting that athletes from all sporting events except gymnastics and skating had utilised the performance enhancers and that they had found the "positive value of the anabolic steroid for the development of a top performance is undoubted".

It was initially thought that women would not be able to retain flexibility while taking steroids, hence the gymnasts did not receive them at first.

Don't forget too, the search for synthetic substances that would improve performances has been going for a long time- and it was not even considered wrong at first. Take for example, the runner who won the marathon at the St Louis Olympics. During the race his trainer gave him a mixture of strychnine (poison, basically) and brandy to drink. He unwittingly drank it, crossed the finish line second (but wound up winning by default because it was discovered the guy who won had driven part of the route in a newly invented automobile!) The runner then collapsed, and if there hadn't been several doctors on hand, probably would have died.  He was not, however, punished for taking anything as the IOC did not yet have mandates on substance use.

According to the report made by the Stasi, within four years of steroid usage, visible improvement was seen in many sports.  It also concluded that women would experience the greatest advantage in using the drugs.

And what happened then?

Well, within two years of the report, they started using the steroids on the women gymnasts in GDR.  Remember, most of these girls were minors at the time too. While some accounts still say that German gymnasts were kept clean of steroids (though given drugs to retard their development), this book found that they had, in fact, been part of it.

The powers-that-be decided that because they had discovered a particular psychotropic steroid called mestanolone, which created a "positive aggressiveness", which allowed the gymnasts to train more and for longer, but did not increase muscle or body weight, thus they could maintain flexibility, to use administer it to girls in gymnastics programs.

On the downside for these gymnasts- this drug was known to cause a higher risk of what is called "virilization" in female gymnasts.

Virilization is when women begin to take on some of the gender characteristics of males because of the drugs, including increased body hair, acne, facial hair, the lowering of the voice and loss of natural fat including breast tissue.  Even worse, virilization was often irreversible.  This, of course, was not always the case.

Gymnast Maxi Gnauck had great success in the late seventies and eighties.

Although I have not found much out there on gymnasts personal experiences of steroids, if you would like to read more about how athletes have suffered because of this crazed desire for national success, read the account of shot-putter Gerd Jacob who has had lifelong medical complications because of having unknowingly taken the drugs, which were given to him as 'vitamins'.  Jacobs has had multiple organ transplants and felt incredible bitterness over the years since his reign in the sport.

Robert Haring- amped after winning- his coach, however, allegedly supplied steroids
to unknowing athletes in the time of the GDR.

Like many socialist sporting systems, the GDR's could be a cruel one.  One athlete, a skier, reporter once,
"For every Olympic champion there are at least 350 invalids.  There are gymnasts among the girls who have to wear corsets from the age of 18 because their spine and their ligaments have become so worn.  There are young people so worn out by the intensive training that they come out of it mentally blank...."

A BBC report stated that as many as two million tablets were given out each year.

Another article in Salon, reported'

The most common substance employed was the anabolic steroid Oral Turinabol from the VEB Jenapharm plant in Jena, which the athletes were given as “vitamins” or “regeneration” tablets. Alongside its effect on muscle growth, Oral Turinabol influenced hormone production and promoted risky and aggressive behavior. Female swimmers and track and field athletes were particularly affected, suffering from odd body hair patterns, deepened voices, a generally masculine build and appearance, and sterility. Shot-putter Birgit Böse, for example, was told by her gynecologist at age twenty-four that she had the reproductive apparatus of an eleven year-old girl. She remains childless to this day. Gymnasts and figure skaters as young as ten or twelve were given steroids mixed into their food. Many of these women did go on to bear children, but their offspring frequently suffered from chronic ailments directly related to the massive use of illegal medications
One female athlete (not a gymnast) had been given so many steroids, that afterward, it was easier for her to have gender reassignment and become a man than to salvage what was left of her original body.

Photo: from Germna Bundesarchive

And one could never blame the athletes, or even fault gymnasts like Gnauck their massive success in this era.  Not only did they probably not even know they were taking it as it was often mixed in their food or administered under the guise of another drug.  Besides, they lived in a republic where taking steroids wasn't just advised , it was state policy.

In fact, after the GDR dissolved, many trainers and official were arrested or charged with lawsuits for giving performance enhancing drugs to athletes.  This included many who were supplying not just teenage girls, but athletes in sports who were as young as ten years old.




  1. For whose who are intersted to learn more about GDR on this subject, there is a book: Faust's Gold, inside the East German Doping Machine by Steven Underleider, Ph. D.

  2. PolyisTCOandbannedJuly 28, 2010 at 9:25 PM

    If PEDs are not yet being used, this remains an untapped frontier. I'm convinced that athletes can be more competetive, even in gym.

    P.s. Lance is dirty!

  3. Hello, there need to be a correction to the post. Robert Harting is a young German athlete who won the world's title in discus in Berlin in 2009. It is Gerd Jacobs who was a shot putter during GDR times and a decade later suffered and had multiple organ trandsplants and felt incredible bitterness ...Harting's coach, Werner Goldmann, was the forrmer coach of Jacobs who dopped him, but now continues coaching. Great gymanstics blog! Enjoy reading it. Thank you for putting time into it.

  4. Great post! Thank you so much for sharing!

  5. This is an awesome post! It's a post like this that first got me reading your blog; combined with your humor and very informative posts, you've kept me as an avid follower. :) Thank you so much, ignore the grammar and spelling nazis, and keep up the great work!

  6. There's an awesome PBS documentary called "Doping for Gold" on the PBS website. It's chilling. I'm not sure if it's available outside the US, but it's worth checking out either way. Just google Secrets of the Dead: Doping for Gold.

  7. Just out of curiousity and sorry if I sound ignorant, but if it's well known that these athletes from GDR for example used performance enhancing drugs why hasn't the IOC moved to take their medals? Is it because of a statute of limitations? Or because these rules weren't put in place until much later? Seems unfair in light of the fact that Raducan still hasn't, and maybe won't ever, get her medal and place in history back. Don't know if it's a fair comparison, but...