The doping of amateur athletes in the former state of East Germany is the focus of a new study involving experts from the University of Stirling and Aarhus University in Denmark.
It is well known that the communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) coordinated a decades-long doping programme of elite professional athletes in the 1970s and 1980s. However, investigative journalists from German broadcaster ARD have recently uncovered details of a similar programme involving amateur, recreational athletes.
Dr April Henning, of the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, is working with Dr Jörg Krieger, Assistant Professor in Sport and Social Science at Aarhus University, on a project – triggered by the documentary aired by ARD – to explore the extent of the amateur doping programme, including its purpose and its impact.
Dr Henning, who specialises in substance abuse in sport and fitness contexts, said: “The amateur doping programme in East Germany ran in parallel to the well-documented professional doping programme and directly impacted hundreds of recreational athletes. While the motivations behind the professional programme were clear – the communist government were seeking to succeed on the world stage, the purpose and drivers of the amateur programme are not as evident.
“Working with colleagues at Aarhus University, we hope to shed light on this important yet little-known period in history, to understand why this programme was undertaken, how it was operated, and the impact it has had on individuals, as well as its wider societal repercussions.”
Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport
Our study will take a number of years to complete, and we believe its findings will improve understanding of this previously unexplored historical event – for those directly impacted, their families, decision-makers, historians, and wider society.
The top-secret, state-sponsored professional doping programme in East Germany was conducted under the direction of the secret police, known as the Stasi, in the 1970s and 1980s but only came to light following the German reunification in 1990.
In February this year, ARD aired the documentary entitled ‘Human trials: The secret experiments in GDR sport’ that revealed that, under a parallel programme, hundreds of amateur athletes were the subjects of doping experiments conducted over a 20-year period.
It is suspected that the amateur doping programme was used to test the impact of the experimental drugs before they were administered to elite professional athletes. The amateur athletes were largely unaware that they were being exposed to strong doses of steroids designed to enhance athletic performance and were also made to undergo medical procedures, including biopsies.
The new exploratory study is aiming to better understand the purpose, operation, and results of the doping programme, and it will benefit from access to previously unseen Stasi files.
Dr Krieger said: “I think the point is to grasp the issue as a whole: Was it a regionally limited phenomenon? How many people were involved? How were the test subjects informed? Are there long-term health effects? Is that recognisable? We want to answer these questions.”
Dr Henning added: “Our study will take a number of years to complete, and we believe its findings will improve understanding of this previously unexplored historical event – for those directly impacted, their families, decisionmakers, historians, and wider society.”