Watching Alison Rooper's documentary "Doping for Gold," which premieres tonight on PBS' "Secrets of the Dead" series, it's easy to make it a "them" or even "then" experience. But with illegal steroid use taking down so many American sports "stars," that would be a mistake. If anything, "Doping" offers a "worst case" scenario that should give everyone pause.
Certainly the story of the secret systematic doping of female athletes in East Germany with steroids, hormones and other illegal supplements during the 1970s lends itself to all sorts of sociopolitical analysis. East Germany was part of the great communist experiment, divided from its western half by a newly erected and instantly famous wall. Determined to prove its superiority, officials of the German Democratic Republic in the east began a program of national athleticism in which the most promising children were handpicked for special sport schools.
Often separated from their families, these children were granted luxuries and privileges -- fresh fruit, trips across Europe -- that were unobtainable to normal GDR citizens. In return, they trained as if their lives depended on it; certainly their coaches' careers did. Contractually obligated to produce champions, East German trainers embraced all the help they could get from the many doctors who monitored their charges. Help that included secretly dosing, and later injecting, female athletes with testosterone and other steroids.
Mixing news footage with reenactments and interviews with a few former GDR athletes and their Olympic competitors, Rooper re-creates a time of enormous political and social pressure, when the Olympics and other international games were seen, and used, as proving grounds for the superiority of one form of government over another, one national identity over another.
The stories of the girls, now middle-aged women, are tragic. Taken into the government-run programs as children, treated with both reverence and near-psychotic expectation, they had no clue, they say, that they were being given anything more than vitamin supplements. Even as their bodies became more masculine, their voices deepened and their performance improved exponentially, questions were met with evasion or punishment. Those whose bodies broke down under the drugging were simply dismissed from the program.
Some, like Ute Krause, were unable to cope with the strange physical changes -- in an attempt to stop what she saw as weight gain, she developed an eating disorder and left the program before she ever got to the Olympics. Others, like swimmer Rica Reinisch, began experiencing gynecological problems; told by an outside doctor that if she didn't stop training she would never be able to have children, Reinisch's parents yanked her out of the program. But it may have been too late -- Reinisch has not been able to carry a pregnancy to term.
Some had their sexuality permanently altered. Katharina Bullin suffers from a panoply of chronic injuries from steroid-aided overtraining, and her androgynous appearance has made life difficult. Heidi Krieger, a champion shot-putter, was so physically altered she eventually underwent gender reassignment surgery and is now Andres Krieger.
At the 1976 Olympics, athletes from the U.S. and other European countries were shocked by the appearances of the East German women, who dominated in swimming and track. There were rumors of doping -- the older GDR athletes joked about it -- but the younger athletes, say those interviewed, though suspicious, had no idea their victories were tainted by illegal supplements.
What makes these individual stories -- never mind all the medals stolen from clean athletes -- even more chilling is the systematic way in which these children and young adults were drugged.
"It was German," says professor Werner Franke, a molecular biologist. "It was orderly. It was bureaucratic. It was written down." Overseen by the notorious Stasi secret police, the program inevitably conjures images of Nazi experimentation and the obsession with the Aryan ideal.
"Everything was an order," says Bullin of her training. "Put on your hat or you'll be punished, put on your thermal vest or you'll be punished, don't eat ice cream in public or you'll be punished."
Unhealthy obsession with athletic prowess is not limited to Germany, nor is the use of athletes as embodiments of nationalism, which is what makes "Doping for Gold" more than just an exploration of the evils of communism or another horrifying use of German efficiency.
Watching how athletes' health, sexuality and lives were so willingly traded for Olympic medals, you can't help but wonder what pressures are at work in the U.S. where so many athletes choose to ingest potentially career-ending and physically damaging drugs.
Certainly an event dedicated to fair play and the exhibition of the miraculous abilities of the human body is a lovely idea. But watching "Doping for Gold," amid endless headlines of tainted athletes and the Games' political machinations, makes you feel as naive as those GDR athletes who wondered how it was that they could swim so fast even though their thighs had grown so alarmingly large.
'Secrets of the Dead - Doping for Gold'
When: 8 to 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-S (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for sex)