East Germany's sports chief in doping trial

After convicting East German coaches, doctors and other sports functionaries of systematically doping athletes for the glory of communism, prosecutors today aimed their sights at the men allegedly responsible for the top-secret program.

Manfred Ewald, the longtime East German sports chief and president of East Germany's gold medal-winning National Olympic Committee, went on trial on charges stemming from years of state-sponsored doping of young female athletes - usually without their consent or even knowledge.

On trial with him is his former medical director, Dr Manfred Hoeppner. Both are charged with 142 counts of being an accessory to causing bodily harm - the side effects of performance-enhancing drugs, ranging from excessive body hair and deep voices to liver and kidney problems.

The court scheduled only one day for testimony; a verdict could come as early as this afternoon.

Ewald and Hoeppner are the highest-ranking officials so far to face trial since Berlin prosecutors filed the first charges in 1997, using documents and other evidence found in once-secret East German government files after German unification.

Despite widespread suspicions about East German athletes over the years, few were ever caught in drug tests; files showed East German scientists also worked on avoiding detection.

But the results of the doping program that began in the 1970s were dramatic: tiny East Germany, with less than 17 million people, went from 20 gold medals in 1972 to an astounding 40 at the Montreal games in 1976. East Germans won 11 of 13 events in women's swimming in 1976 and again in 1980.

Ewald, now 73, allegedly carried the main responsibility for the state-sponsored drug program. A member of the communist party's central committee since 1963, he was president of East Germany's sports federation from 1961-88 and of its Olympics committee from 1973 until the country ceased to exist in 1990.

According to the indictment, he and Hoeppner believed anabolic steroids were needed to improve the performance of their female athletes. In October 1974, Ewald created the euphemistically named "working group - supporting methods," headed by Hoeppner but controlled by both men.

The group developed the system of administering anabolic steroids either through injections or little blue pills. The athletes - many of them still minors - and their parents were told they were taking vitamins. Hoeppner, now 66, allegedly ordered the drugs himself and distributed them to the sports doctors and coaches.

The two men also collected information about the results of the hormone preparations, including the resulting side effects, according to the indictment. According to one media report, Hoeppner suggested to Ewald in 1977 not to let female athletes who'd developed especially deep voices do television interviews anymore.

Prosecutors say many of the athletes are still suffering from side effects, including menstrual and gynecological problems and the development of male characteristics, such as excessive body hair or muscles. Thirty-two former athletes have filed their own complaints with the court.

"I can't forget what was done to me," one victim, former swimming champion Martina Gottschalk, said in this week's Super Illu magazine. "Three times a day we had to swallow little blue pills with sweetened tea. ... We were told it was vitamins, but we were doped against our will."

Gottschalk, 34, said she still suffers pains in her abdomen and has problems with her gall bladder, and also blames the steroids for her son's birth defect. He was born in 1985 with crippled feet.

Courts previously have handed down fines and suspended sentences - but no jail terms - for nine former East German sports officials for drug involvement.

In the harshest sentence so far, the former chief doctor of East Germany's swim team, Lothar Kipke, was convicted in January on 58 counts of causing bodily harm. He was fined 7,300 marks ($3,400), and received a 15-month suspended jail sentence to be served only if he violates probation.

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