Jenapharm says drugs were legal

Updated: April 28, 2005, 9:52 AM ET

BERLIN -- East German athletes stopped taking mandatory performance-enhancing drugs with the fall of the Berlin Wall 16 years ago.

For many, though, the devastating effects on their health are just beginning.

"We are not just talking about complaints which can be fixed by an operation. We are talking about heart disease, liver failure, cancer," said former shot putter Birgit Boese, who was pumped full of drugs from the age of 11 and told that they were vitamins.

Now victims of the state-controlled doping program, intended to produce Olympic gold medalists, are to fight for compensation from Jenapharm, the drug company that produced their steroids.

Lawyer Michael Lehner said he planned to sue Jenapharm for $4.1 million compensation, and Berlin-based lawyer Sven Leistikow said he will bring a test case, probably involving a female former Olympian, against the firm by the summer.

Former athletes face spiralling medical costs to fund pain relief and osteopath bills and in many cases have no state medical insurance because they have been too ill to work.

Oral-Turinabol, a steroid produced by Jenapharm which also made oral contraceptives and sex hormones, was the most common drug. The firm was privatized in 1991 and is now owned by pharmaceutical giant Schering AG.

"Jenapharm was part of the state doping system. It researched and produced doping substances and was involved in their distribution," said Lehner, who represents some 160 former athletes.

Jenapharm says as Oral-Turinabol was legal in the German Democratic Republic and it did nothing wrong.

"This substance was legally approved in the GDR and available on the market, but was misused by sports physicians and trainers," Jenapharm said in a statement.

The firm has refused requests for talks with lawyers seeking an out-of-court settlement.

Lehner says research from files left behind by East Germany's notorious Stasi secret police shows Jenapharm also passed non-approved substances to trainers and withheld information about the side effects, thereby breaking the law.

"Oral Turinabol may have been legal, but other medicines were not. It was also against the law not to inform athletes about the considerable side effects to which they were exposed when they were forced to take these pills," he said.

Former swimmer Catherine Menschner, 40, who has had seven miscarriages, found after research in Stasi files that she formed part of a secret guinea-pig class for steroid trials. Menschner told Germany's ARD television she needed to take pain killers constantly.

Jenapharm asserts that those responsible for doping were: "the heads of the Socialist Party and the government who wanted to demonstrate the abilities of the GDR by achieving success in sporting events, and on the other hand the sports physicians and trainers who used the doping substances on the athletes."

State-endorsed doping began with the Cold War when every eastern bloc gold was an ideological victory. From 1974, Manfred Ewald, the head of the GDR's sports federation, imposed blanket doping. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the country of 17 million collected nine gold medals. Four years later the total was 20 and in 1976 it doubled again to 40.

In 2000 Ewald was convicted of causing bodily harm and given a 22-month suspended sentence. The few trainers and doctors ever charged were given moderate fines or suspended sentences.

"Under German law, Ewald received a relatively severe punishment. The problem is bodily harm is not considered a particularly serious offense in this country," Lehner said.

"It is just like after the Nazi era -- with everyone saying it is not me, it was not my fault," said Boese.

Victims of the doping regime have been bitterly disappointed at the lack of results.

As many as 2,000 former athletes are seriously ill. Some have died; others are waiting to see what health problems their children may have inherited, said Boese.

"Many of those sports people worst affected need every last bit of strength just to stay alive," Boese said.

She dismisses any suggestion that within the totalitarian GDR state, doctors and scientists had no choice but to comply.

"Those responsible within Jenapharm had the opportunity to say 'we will not produce this because we know it will be misused in sport.' No one would have lost their lives for standing up."

Leistikow added: "I do not believe that the pressure in East Germany was such that they were unable to refuse. They knew it was crime.

"I get the impression that they thought so long as this remains secret 'I will play along.' They also wanted the GDR to look good on the international stage and agreed to go to any lengths to ensure athletes' success."

Rainer Hartwich, Stasi codename "Klinner," who worked as a clinical research doctor for Jenapharm, told German television he alerted the Stasi in 1988 to the dangers of steroids.

"I believe there is a moral responsibility here, and that the victims must be supported. This is Jenapharm's responsibility and they should fulfill their duty," he said.