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Heidi Krieger: Blue pills and gold medals.

Heidi Krieger: Blue pills and gold medals.

“I still say today that they killed Heidi”. Andreas Krieger, 2013.

Sport is disparaged by some people for its futility, the idea of adults playing children’s games, wasting their time in pursuit of achievements that make little or no difference to ordinary lives. As a friend of mine once said when asked to watch a soccer match: ‘Oh, I don’t think so. The thought of 22 millionaires chasing a pig’s bladder around a pitch is not really my idea of entertainment’. There is, no doubt, some very real justification for this view, with genuine amazement and anger at some of the wages that are paid to top sports stars – and the astronomical figures that are paid for their transfers between clubs. And  when the hype starts over events such as the Olympics and the World Cup, it is natural that some people will really wonder what all the fuss is about. But as some other posts have suggest, some of us do believe that sport matters and is, at times, rather more than just a game. At its best, people love sport because it is unscripted drama and, without being too grand, it says something about societies and cultures as well as the human condition. The skills, fitness, training, conditioning and teamwork required do offer something to admire; the control of emotions and the handling of pressure can offer insights that are valued by many other professionals; and the intensity of competition, the passion, the spectacle and the final result can inspire individuals, give nations pride and create memories that last a lifetime. From Borg v McEnroe to Ali v Foreman, from the Gladiators to the modern Olympics, from WG Grace to Babe Ruth, from Sumo wrestling to cross country skiing, from Brazil in 1970 to England’s win in the Ashes in 2005, sport matters on so many levels.

But sometimes it’s not quite like that and here are two famous examples of why sport is sometimes less uplifting.

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Italian marathon runner, Dorando Pietri, crosses the line at the end of the marathon in London in 1908.

(Author: unknown; source: here)

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Lance Armstrong heading for victory in the Tour de France, 2003.

(Author: Gawain78 Source: here)

The looks and the style seen in these two photos are quite different but they are rather similar as both lost their titles: Pietri was disqualified after being helped by judges when he fell a  number of times in sight of the line while Armstrong lost all seven of his Tour titles, as well as many other awards, a lot of money and his reputation, after being found guilty of the use of banned drugs. One was an amateur, guilty of getting unexpected help as he pushed himself to the limit in pursuit of a medal; one was found guilty of the planned and systematic use of drugs so as to push his limits beyond any that were possible under his own ability. Something has changed in sport, and in society, in the century that separates Pietri from Armstrong – and that something is not good as it has left question marks over many achievements in many sports, not the least of them being cycling and athletics, which this post will look at a little more.

Once upon a time, in what might be seen as some naive and glorious days, athletics was all about individual people pushing themselves to the limit, developing their skills, working hard and having a good clean competition. They did this while holding down a full-time job and got little or no reward for their labours. But things slowly changed and events like the Olympics, which were re-established in 1896, took on huge overtones of national pride – or at least they did from the 1930s onwards. In the increasingly nationalistic years between the world wars, victory in sport came to signify something special not just for the athlete concerned but for the nation and the system that they represented. Fascist leaders, for example, came to see their top athletes as products of their system, glorifying their stars as symbolic heroes whose powerful bodies and keen minds somehow reflected the supremacy of their ideology. While the record breaking miner, Aleksei Stakhanov (1906-77), might be a hero for Stalin’s Soviet Union, it was the likes of the boxer Max Schmeling (1905-2004) who Hitler wanted to present as a symbol of Nazi supremacy after his defeat of Joe Louis in 1936. Athletes became representatives, role models and examples of the best that a country could offer, symbols of  the ideology, the diet, the coaching, the lifestyle and so on. Sport was seen as a powerful tool for propaganda and a great turning point was reached with the Berlin Olympics of 1936 which Hitler believed had the potential to cast a revitalised Germany with the world  experiencing a spectacular event with Aryan athletes to the fore. As is well known, one Jesse Owens from the USA, put a number of files into the ointment at Berlin but that did not change the idea that sport could be used to enhance political power by the shaping of opinions. Sport had truly taken on a nationalistic dimension and this was only to be increased after World War II.

In the years following 1945, the Cold war developed between the Western powers which favoured capitalism and democracy, under the leadership of the USA, and the Eastern forces which chose state control and Communism, under the guidance of the USSR. Under Joseph Stalin, there was little time for, or interest in, the power of sport but under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, this was to change. A most significant year in this was 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s famous ‘Secret Speech’ (see the post on Khrushchev) which was part of a change of policy from the time of Stalin. The new idea of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ meant that the USSR was going to compete with the west and defeat it by showing the supremacy of its system in terms of art, culture, industry and, of course, sport. The goal would be that these victories would show the workers of the West that they would be better off under Communism and so lead to a revolution – and the collapse of capitalist democracies. Obviously this did not happen but the rise of Communist countries as sporting powers (at least in simpler sports which did not require too much by way of complex skills or technological expertise, such as motor racing, golf, tennis or horse racing) is obvious from the medals table in the Olympic Games from 1956 onwards (see the post on the Olympic Games). The drive for supremacy started in the USSR but was very soon adopted by the satellite states of Eastern Europe with a special emphasis being placed on women’s sport where things were less developed than in man’s sport and where changes based on greater strength and technique could be quickly turned into progress.

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Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), leader of the USSR whose commitment to ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ after 1956 changed the Cold war and was a major influence in the development of drug use in sport. (Author: Heinz Junge; Source: here)

As mentioned, Communist countries such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany soon developed major sporting programmes. High levels of participation were encouraged, elite athletes were identified, and special coaching facilities were established. The elite athletes became full-time in an age when few could do this in the West. Special diets were developed, new techniques explored and a propaganda system was built up to ensure high levels of support for the programmes. Leading athletes were ‘employed’ by the police or armed forces but then trained full-time at their respective sports. The benefits were clear as the USSR soon overtook the USA as the leading country at the Olympics. This was a huge shock to the USA and the West which had grown used to winning medals and dominating the Olympics, amongst other events. In an age in which television and media coverage of sport was developing rapidly, the sight of Communist athletes racing past the best the West could offer raised many questions – and doubts. These concerns in the West were matched by elation in the East but in the drive to maintain and strengthen the advantage, there was a move towards the first systematic use of drugs to enhance sporting performance, most notably in events which required strength and endurance. From the 1960s through into the 1980s, the use of drugs such as testosterone and anabolic steroids, was widespread, and it was all very easy as there was drugs testing at the time, which seems extraordinary to us but was a sign of the way the system tends to lag behind the cheats. One sign of the widespread power of drug use in these decades can be seen in the many records that were set then which marked extraordinary advances – and have not been matched since, especially in the women’s power events like the shot and discus.

But there was a price to be paid for this, and it fell on the athletes themselves. Young gymnasts, for example, were taken from their homes at an early age and forced to work incredibly long hours, often in great pain. For many of the girls chosen for the programmes, the plan was to keep them underweight so that puberty would be delayed which allowed greater flexibility to be maintained. Some went on to successful careers but many others ended up almost crippled through injuries and arthritis, the results of their work-load, training schedule and diet. However, drug use was most common in the endurance and power events, where anabolic steroids were seen to be hugely beneficial to performance. The discovery of the effects of, for example, testosterone on the female body were known and from the 1960s it was injected into many athletes in Communist countries, nowhere more so than in East Germany. Despite having a population of less than 20 million, only a third of the size of the more affluent West Germany, East Germany rose to be the third most powerful athletics nation in the world behind the USSR and the USA during the 1970s and 1980s. The claim made by the authorities was always that success was down to the power of the Communist system the quality of education, the superiority of coaching and the passion shown by the athletes but there was a simpler element to the reason. The use of drugs, of steroids and testosterone, was never mentioned but its effects were clear to all. The authorities were not keen to investigate because it would undermine the sport and run a risk of causing a massive political incident at a time when the Cold war was at its height but many people had serious questions about the progress made by so many people from a limited number of countries and in such specific events.

One particular story can sum up the experience of as many as ten thousand East German athletes, and the thousands of others from around the world, both under Communism and in the West, who ended up using drugs in sport. This is the story of Heidi Krieger, a shot putter born in East Berlin in 1966.

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Oral-Turinabol tablets as on display at the DDR Museum in Berlin. (Author: User:FA2010; Source: here)

Heidi Krieger was one of those athletes chosen for an athletics programme in this period who, as part of her training, was required to take a small blue pill. It was an anabolic steroid called ‘Oral-Turinabol’, which contained testosterone. It boosted her muscle growth and endurance as well as helping her to recover from injury more quickly. The distances she could throw the shot went up dramatically – but it had side-effects: increased risk of infertility, increased hair growth like stubble and chest hair, increased risk of breast cancer, greater heart problems and the risk of cancer. Heidi Krieger was just one of nearly a thousand athletes who suffered serious consequences from taking ‘Oral-Turinabol’. She was a successful athlete, winning gold in the shot put with a distance of 21.10 metres at the 1986 European Championships at which East German women won four of the six field events. There were 18 medals available in all for these six events and competitors from Communist countries won 15 of them. And it’s interesting to note that the distances achieved in winning the gold medals in the shot, discus and javelin at the European Championships in 1986 were all greater than those that won gold in Beijing Olympics of 2008 or at London in 2012.

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Heidi Krieger (1966-97) (Author: Wolfgang Thieme; Source: here)

But Heidi Krieger was never comfortable in herself after she started being given the bright blue pills when she was 14 or so. She was given the drug regularly over many years, eventually suffering significant side-effects, growing stubble and other bodily hair associated with men and starting to develop male genitalia. She and her friends watched as their noses grew wider, their hands got larger, their muscles expanded and they became more aggressive. Other complications such as depression, severe acne, liver malfunctions, much deeper voices and reduced libidos were all consequences of the ‘bright blue pills’. She eventually reached the point where she saw that the only way out was to have a sex-change operation and so it was that in 1997 she became ‘Andreas Krieger’. As Andreas, he married Ute Krause, a former East German swimmer, who had herself been forced to take ‘Oral-Turinabol’ pills many years before and had been driven to attempt suicide by the effects. The ‘Heidi Krieger Medal’ is now awarded annually in Germany, honouring an athlete who has combated doping in sport; the gold medal from 1986 forms part of the trophy.

The simple facts of the story of Heidi/Andreas Krieger hide the battle for supremacy in the Cold War. Ideology and image was so important that the system was all and individuals ceased to count. Powerful people at the top of the system, especially in Communism, were willing to use and abuse their own citizens in pursuit of victory, seeing each medal and each record as a nail in the coffin of the other side. Sport was as much a part of the Cold War as were speeches, spies and missiles. People were dehumanised in the pursuit of power and many suffered great emotional and psychological pain as well as physical suffering. It is another reminder that sport is important as a reflection of what human beings are capable of doing – both for good and ill.

And what happened through the use of drugs in sport cannot have been what Karl Marx had in mind when he imagined ‘Communism’ as a system which would create a world of opportunity, equality and justice for all. But this is not only a problem of the Eastern Bloc countries in the Cold War for the abuse of drugs in sport was going on in the West before the Berlin wall came down – and it has continued since, and few major countries or sports have escaped their influence: Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong and dozens of others in cycling; Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and many others in athletics; Mark McGwire and so many others in baseball; the lists go on and on.

But for all that,  sport still has the ability to inspire like few other things; maybe its just a tragic reality that drugs will now always be a part of the script and that they have done so much damage to people like Andreas Krieger.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘More Than A Game’ by Jan Stradling (Pier 9, Murdoch Books); ‘Rogues, Rotters, Rascals and Cheats’ by John Perry (John Blake Publishing Ltd., 2007); ‘Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport’ by Chris Clarke (OUP Oxford, 2013); ‘The Dirtiest Race in History: ‘Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 100m Final’ by Richard Moore (Wisden Publishing, 2013);  ‘Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong’ by David Walsh (Simon & Schuster, 2013); ‘The Secret Race: Inside the hidden world of the Tour de France: doping, cover-ups and winning at all costs’ by Tyler Hamilton and David Coyle (Corgi, 2013); ‘The Death of Marco Pantani: A Biography’ by Matt Rendell (Phoenix, 2007).

Film: ‘The Armstrong Lie’ (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2014)