That Marion Vogel is still alive to tell her story at all is quite something.
She was just one of many hundreds of athletes in the 1970s and 80s, who was used as little more than a lab rat in a State sponsored doping programme that, for sheer size and evil ambition, dwarfs the current Russian scandal.
Vogel is speaking publicly for the first time about her experience – it has taken her the best part of 40 years to feel strong enough to do so.
She talks in a deep, quiet voice as she recalls her few years at the top as an elite East German handball player.
She remembers how her body changed shape but at the time she put it down to her hard training schedule. It was only decades later the truth hit her.
“We were given vitamin drinks. We got injections of course, but they were flu shots or for back aches, at no point did I think it could be doping. Our trainers were like our family, and you wouldn’t expect it from your family, to be given something behind your back.”
She still lives with the effects of that secret abuse.
“I have four chronic illnesses that aren’t easily classified, I have kidney failure stage 2, two nerves were severed on the left side of my neck, leading to strong wear on my neck and spine.”
The impact of her stolen years also eats deep into her mind: “Overall all athletes, including me, suffer from depression or depressive phases, the mind is so fragile that we’re very susceptible to mental illnesses.
“I have gone through a deep valley to come out of it and to talk about it. Two years ago I wouldn’t have been sitting here.”
Marion’s story is all too familiar. And it was only exposed after the collapse of East Germany and fall of the Berlin wall.
It was then that files compiled by the secret police, the Stasi, became public. Athletes whose records weren’t destroyed could finally investigate what was done to them in the name of Sport.
The GDR believed athletic success would promote its global reputation. Purely in terms of results, it was an extraordinary triumph but in reality the country’s dominance only bred suspicion. It also ruined thousands of lives.
Whereas Marion failed in her ambition to become an international star, Ines Geipel achieved that status. She was part of the East German 4 by 100m relay team which smashed the world record by an astonishing 3 seconds in 1984.
She too was unknowingly doped but worse was to happen to her when, in sinister fashion, her career was put to an end.
Geipel remembers how as soon as she’d been selected for the national team an army of trainers and doctors were at her disposal.
“You were in the system, there was a culture of pills, everywhere I went, in every bedroom there were pills lying around.”
When she questioned doctors about the treatments she was getting she says they were evasive “We are obviously just doing what’s best for you.” was the usual explanation.
Ines went to Mexico as part of her training schedule for the Los Angeles Olympics. While there she fell in love with a Mexican athlete. They planned to start a new life together, away from East Germany, after the Games.
When she returned home, somebody close to her alerted the Stasi to what she was planning. At the same time she developed a persistent stomach ache. What happened next is chilling, macabre even.
Geipel was told she needed an operation to correct her problem; little did she know this was actually a Stasi plan to silence her.
She had the operation during which the surgeon cut through her stomach muscles, she would never race at the top level again.
When she eventually found her medical records, decades later, she discovered the full horror of what happened to her. In one almost casual sentence written before the operation “Now we have finally found an opportunity to put her on ice.”
Ines now helps other former athletes like herself but it is not straight forward and much of the truth is still buried. Many of the athletes won’t come forward. What stops them?
Geipel says it’s complicated as many are still deeply damaged by what went on.
“Those that come to us, are all suffering immensely, and normally they will call then hang up, call again and hang up.
“You have to be quick to get their names. Some won’t even say their names; it’s an area with an incredible amount of shame and enormous feelings of guilt, and that’s why it’s so important that so much more is made public.”
If the State gave the orders, what of the doctors who carried them out how could they justify using their expertise to experiment on the country’s youth?
And what of the trainers, who at worst were handing out the pills or at best watched it happen and turn the other way?
Klaus Rudolph trained East Germany’s best swimmers. In the early 2000’s he admitted his limited part in the scandal and was fined a few thousand pounds.
He was allowed to carry on working. He says it was the doctors who led the programme: “There were individual situations where the doctors couldn’t be there, and then the medicines were handed to one of the trainers but we told ourselves that if doctors were doing it then it must all be all right.”
He does admit that when he was promoted to training the national squad, he was told a selection of athletes were being doped.
“If you wanted to look at it critically, my problem was that I did know about the situation in general and didn’t go against it.”
But Rudolph adds that at the time fear prevented people from speaking out. “Bravery is something we didn’t have. Even if we didn’t want to do something, if we thought it was immoral, or even criminal if you like, we would have lost our jobs.”
Rudolph offers further justifications “The first is the moral case. We said, the others are doing it too, so why shouldn’t we? You have to see it in the context of the political fight, East versus West, the cold war, and so on.”
Listening to Rudolph, calmly recalling those days you get the sense his reasoning now allows him to sleep better at night.
“The second factor was the health-related argument – the side effects, which we knew nothing about at the time. We just said, they’re doctors, they know what they are doing. So we’ll let them get on with it.
And thirdly and this is what really weighs on me is the criminal side, that these drugs were given to young swimmers without their knowing, at progressively younger ages.
“When I found out about this, I took a stand, because I didn’t agree with it. I was of the opinion that we train them so well that we didn’t need to do this, and that’s when the machine worked as it did in the GDR. The party said to me, Comrade Rudolph, this isn’t acceptable, either you join in with us or you stop.”
And that, in microcosm, tells you everything you need to know about East Germany’s ‘programme’. A dictatorship with a Grand Plan, enacted by apparatchiks who were too terrified not to comply.
The eyes and ears of the State were everywhere. In that warped world, the health and well-being of its disposable teenage athletes was largely irrelevant.
Modern Germany says it now recognises the sins of the East and has made 10,000 Euros available to each former doped athlete.
Only a small percentage have claimed it and those that have consider it a derisory amount given what many have been through. 10,000 Euros for a stolen childhood and in some cases a life time of ill health.
Geipel, who now heads a group fighting for the rights of the athletes affected. She accepts the Government has moved but not enough.
She cites a degree of denial, even today “I think the reason has something to do with politics. People always immediately blame athletes when this issue is discussed. No sports official in East or West has ever had to take responsibility. Not a single doctor lost his license and the whole science is just allowed to continue.”
She says that in the knowledge that the scale of systematic doping in West Germany has not been uncovered as yet. And it’s something she doesn’t expect to happen, not by the Government at least. Despite their public protestations to the contrary, Geipel is convinced it’s an issue they’d rather was consigned to history once and for all.
- On Assignment is on ITV at 10:55pm on Thursday, 25th May