The drug victims: Medals tainted by revelations of East German abuse
Tuesday 13 January 1998
Recently, a number of British competitors denied Olympic, world, European, or Commonwealth glory by drug abusers have called for a reallocation of medals. However, as Mike Rowbottom reports, it is not as simple as that.
The news of suspected Chinese drug abuse now emanating from swimming's World Championships has struck a particularly chilling chord with Kathy Cook, Britain's leading sprinter of the 1980's. It is not hard to understand why.
Voices have been raised in recent weeks to rewrite the record books in the light of the latest evidence that, until its demise in 1990, East Germany ran a state-governed doping policy involving all its significant performers.
It was Cook's misfortune that her prime coincided with the prime years of the regime which turned a small country of 17 million people into the third-strongest sporting nation on earth behind the Soviet Union and the United States.
If one subtracts the performances of retrospectively implicated East Germans in Cook's races, you could argue she would have won at least another three major medals in her career. She would have been the European 200m champion in 1982 - when she took silver - and would have had two individual medals from the 1980 Olympics to add to the bronze she did win in the 400 metres at the Los Angeles Games of 1984.
No other British competitor, save perhaps the swimmer Sharron Davies, who lost out on the 1980 Olympic 400 metres medley title to a 17-year- old East German, appears to have been as harshly affected by the activities of the discredited GDR.
So the suspicion that more cheating might be underway on a huge and orchestrated scale lowered the spirits of the Olympian, who is now a 37-year-old mother of three and part-time teacher.
"When I heard about the latest Chinese incident, I thought to myself `Surely it isn't all happening again, with just a different set of people? It is just so depressing.'"
Perhaps the most depressing element of the unearthing of the old GDR methods is the horrifying realisation that drug-taking was systematic and state-controlled.
As a number of sportsmen and women from the former Communist state take out legal suits against their old coaches and doctors, claiming that drug- taking has damaged their health, fuller details of what was baldly known as State Plan 14.25 have been uncovered.
Professor Werner Franke, a molecular biologist appointed to investigate GDR methods by the German parliament, says he has found Stasi secret police files showing that "hundreds" of East German competitors who won titles were on drugs.
That claim has been given credence by testimonies from former competitors such as the shot putter Heidi Krieger, who says she was forced to undergo a sex-change after being fed huge doses of male hormones in anabolic steroids, and the swimmer Roland Schmidt, who claims he is one of many male athletes who have had to have breasts surgically removed.
These plaintiffs are the prime victims of the GDR doping regime, notwithstanding the understandable outrage or frustration of those whom they deprived of medals. What recompense they will gain from the legal suits they have taken out against their former coaches and doctors remains to be seen.
Any convictions would certainly increase the pressure on the International Olympic Committee to re-allocate medals. The precedent for doing this is already well established. Four years before Ben Johnson's Olympic 100 metres title passed to Carl Lewis following a positive drug test, Britain's Mike McLeod was promoted from bronze to silver medallist in the 10,000m at Los Angeles after Finland's Martti Vainio was found to have taken steroids.
But these decisions occurred after positive tests from the races themselves. As many East German competitors have testified, GDR athletes due to compete internationally were told when to stop taking their pills beforehand and tested to make sure no illegal traces remained in their bodies. If they showed up positive, they were told to withdraw because of injury.
The International Amateur Athletic Federation has already baulked at annulling GDR performances at past championships, not least because they have a six-year time limit on any such alteration.
Cook, who is married to the former British 400m runner Garry, sympathises with Davies' demand that she be awarded her rightful medal nearly 20 years after the event.
"I can fully understand how Sharon feels," she said. "Just like her, I have been thinking about the question a lot recently. You do wonder if things in your life might have been different if all this had come to light nearer the time.
"Garry and I talk about it when evidence comes out, and we say, jokingly, I was robbed. But I had my fair share of standing on the rostrum, and I think there is too much water under the bridge to change things now."
Cook's magnanimity is partly informed by simple logic. As she points out, if GDR performances are to be annulled, how does one legislate for all those wrongfully knocked out in the heats and semi-finals, and how can one say how they might have reacted to the challenge of continuing competition?
The other major factor which would militate against such draconian action is that it is too simplistic to believe that only GDR athletes were cheating. Sufficient doubts have been raised about the performances of Western athletes in the Olympics involving the GDR - in 1972, 76, 80 and 88 - for that position to be rendered ludicrous.
Anecdotal details of the East German drug regime have been around for several years. In 1989 Hans-Georg Aschenbach, an East German ski-jumping gold medallist at the 1976 Winter Olympics, claimed that he and other children enrolled in special sports schools had regularly been given pills without being told they contained steroids.
"Children were doped up without they or their parents knowing about it," he said.
Aschenbach, who defected to West Germany in 1988, said he subsequently learned from his older team-mates that the pills contained drugs. "We were forbidden to talk to anybody about them," he said. "Anyone who talked was dropped from the team."
Such a policy obviously did not prevent rumours from spreading fast. Cook knew a number of the East German sprinters throughout her 10-year career, which ended in 1987.
"Sometimes I would have to look at runners twice because their whole shape had completely changed," she said. "The most disturbing thing was the way some of the girls' voices had lowered."
For all her suspicions, though, the realisation of the scale of implied wrongdoing has come as a surprise. "The idea that the whole team was involved, lock, stock and barrel, is horrifying," she said. "Especially when you think that some of them were so young."
She was particularly disappointed to see evidence that Marita Koch was implicated in the drugs regime. Koch's 400m world record of 47.60sec - nearly two seconds faster than Cook's British record or 49.42 - has stood since 1985.
"Marita was a role model to me," Cook said. "She was a really nice person, and she had this charisma. The crowd would go silent because she was so fast. She just destroyed fields. I remember watching on television when she set her world record and it left me speechless."
Now Cook finds there is almost nothing to be said. "I don't know how I would feel if I ever saw her again," she said. "I've no particular wish to. I feel a mixture of sadness and anger about the whole thing."
But the rival with whom Cook feels most aggrieved is Canada's Angela Taylor, later Issajenko, who beat her to the 1986 Commonwealth Games 200m title and admitted three years later to having taken drugs since the 1980 Olympics.
"I feel angrier about what Angela did because she chose to go down that track herself," Cook said. "It seems a lot of the East German athletes were taken as youngsters and told what to do without always being given the facts. It is a horrific situation, but you can have more sympathy for people involved in it.
"One of the saddest things is that those East German athletes were never able to show how good they really were without the help of drugs. Their whole careers were flawed.
"I don't know how you could win a race knowing that you had cheated and gain any satisfaction from it. Once the initial excitement was over, the lap of honour and the medal ceremony, I don't think I could live with knowing that I had cheated. It's the way you are made, I suppose."
New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site on Friday
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