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Olympic Figures Left a Legacy of Suffering

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Special to the Times

Major news organizations, including The Times, offered an expanded obituary on Manfred Ewald, the former East German minister of sport who died last month. Even though the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and his country no longer exists, his death was considered worldwide news primarily because of his former role as an architect of East Germany’s nefarious drug program for athletes.

Almost a month later, the death of Prince Alexandre de Merode, a prominent figure with the International Olympic Committee for four decades and a well-known anti-doping advocate, received similar coverage.

Merode, a Belgian who died at 68 of lung cancer, was among founders of the IOC medical commission in 1967. He, at least early in the campaign, fought arduously to clean up the rampant use of steroids and other performance-enhancement drugs in sports.

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One might assume they were opposing generals in the still-raging drug war. In reality, both contributed to the scarring, physical and psychological, of many athletes -- one because of his actions, the other by his inaction.

Ewald was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill sports figure, but rather the minister of sport and the president of his nation’s Olympic committee for nearly 30 years. He oversaw a sports machine that produced about 500 Olympic medals from a country with only 17 million people.

He wore many hats during his tenure. In addition to being the “sportsfuhrer” of the former GDR, he also had strong ties to the Jenapharm Pharmaceutical Co. and to the IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland. His credentials might have been perceived in some circles as impeccable.

But he also commanded a task force of doctors, trainers and coaches who masterminded the biggest doping scam in the history of sports. In addition to recruiting youngsters identified as potential talent for the state, he and his team of experts systematically injected more than 10,000 East German athletes (some as young as 11) with illegal and dangerous performance-enhancing drugs.

Anabolic steroids and their synthetic derivatives were forced upon youngsters with the intent of winning medals and elevating the political prestige of East Germany.

Ewald and his colleagues had great success. But the cost to the nation and its citizens was devastating. The pills and the injections have led to severe health problems for thousands of former East German competitors. Many athletes suffer from heart disease, pancreatic cancer, liver tumors and severe depression.

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Women were most severely affected. Many have ovarian cysts, deepened voices, facial hair (which requires heavy makeup to disguise) and miscarriages. Many women have given birth to deformed children; some are now blind, many born with club feet. The list goes on.

While meeting with scholars in Germany researching my book: “Faust’s Gold, Inside the East German Doping Machine,” I studied carefully how Ewald and colleagues pulled off what was a three-decade-long scam. Fortunately, all of the doctors and their subordinates kept meticulous notes and log books of every pill, injection and steroid cocktail given to each athlete.

These notes were subsequently found in Stasi (East German secret police) records, leading Berlin prosecutors to file 412 indictments and prosecute GDR officials for “intentionally committing bodily harm” to minors and other athletes. Found in the Stasi files and other documents was shocking evidence of a state-sponsored doping regime that led right to the top of President Erich Honecker’s government.

And one must ask: How did this go unnoticed, undetected and unpunished by Merode and friends at the IOC?

Ewald, in fact, was honored by the IOC in 1985 when then-President Juan Antonio Samaranch awarded him “the Olympic Order,” which is the Olympic movement’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize.

By then, it had become increasingly difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys, fact from fiction. In 1994, Merode told Associated Press that documents confirming six positive drug tests were “apparently shredded” during the cleanup of his room in the Biltmore Hotel after the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

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Ewald might have had a happier end had he bought himself a shredder. He, along with many other officials, was prosecuted and given a small fine and 22 months of jail time, which became a probated sentence because of his poor health.

Ewald was born in 1926, the son of a tailor. During the trials -- which I attended and wrote about -- it was disclosed that he joined the Hitler Youth movement in 1938 and in 1944 became a full-fledged member of the Nazi party. At 27, in 1953, he worked his way up to a significant position in East Germany’s Central Committee. His Nazi past reared its ugly head during the Berlin doping trials, and reached a painful moment of despair when chief counsel Michael Lehner yelled at one of Ewald’s colleagues, Dr. Lothar Kikpe, and said: “You are the Joseph Mengele of the GDR.”

Unlike his indicted co-conspirators and other GDR coaches and doctors who acknowledged use of illegal steroids and administration of the injections, Ewald denied involvement in the state-sponsored system of performance-enhancement drugs. “Communists do not murder people!” he said before his testimony.

While most of the athletes I interviewed who testified against Ewald and other officials at the criminal trials felt some relief and vindication, nearly all were furious because he refused to accept responsibility for his crimes against humanity. Some women brought forth their deformed children and, with the permission of the presiding judge, asked Ewald to look at the children and see what harm he had caused other human beings, another generation.

The German government recently established a victims’ compensation fund to assist more than 1,000 athletes who have applied for support. But the bitterness and suspicion remain. Many German athletes returned their medals to the IOC and asked that officials restore proper acknowledgment upon the “true winners” of Olympic contests. This includes many of our preeminent U.S. female swimmers from the Munich, Montreal and Seoul Olympics. Their requests have fallen on deaf ears.

Merode, who in later years was equally passive in dealing with the rampant drug use among Chinese athletes, and his colleagues were approached in January 1998 with a formal request to review the GDR doping situation. He was asked to apologize to the American swimmers, not to restore medals, just to offer a simple apology. He refused and reminded those in attendance that the “IOC is not in the business of rewriting history.”

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The story does not end with the obituaries of Ewald and Merode.

Documents have emerged from the Berlin prosecution files indicating that one drug from the Ewald era, androstenedione (a.k.a. andro -- made notorious by baseball’s Mark McGwire) was designed and produced as part of the East German program. Although this drug is banned in some sports, it is widely available in health food stores and sold pervasively on the Internet.

According to one U.S. government study, nearly 4% of high school seniors have used steroids, and some 500,000 adolescents have “cycled” through steroid use at some point. A study of Massachusetts middle schools found that 2.7% of kids admitted to trying steroids for sports performance. The Drug Enforcement Administration and Justice Department have also become quite alarmed as new patent applications have surfaced, filed by former GDR doctors, who now want to bring their pharmacological brilliance to the U.S.

And finally, we must not always point fingers across the ocean but face some very unpleasant skeletons in our own closet. A lawsuit filed by former U.S. athletes is pending in U.S. District Court in Denver. The complaint alleges doping practices by American coaches and trainers on some of our former elite athletes. One athlete has come forward and noted that his trainer was previously employed in the former German Democratic Republic. The case is scheduled for trial in April.

Dr. Ungerleider, a psychologist and member of the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry, is the author of “Faust’s Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine” (St. Martin’s Press, 2001).

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