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The German Trials

Theatre Of The Absurd


Karin Helsmtaedt

Perhaps the most surprising development of the Berlin Doping Trials came in early June, when former world record-holders Carola Nitschke-Beraktschjan and Christiane Knacke-Sommer announced that, because of the systematic doping to which they were subjected in the former GDR, they would like to return any medals they may have won in international competitions. Knacke-Sommer, who now resides in Vienna, won bronze in the 100 butterfly at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Nitschke-Beraktschjan, a former European champion in the medley relay who held the world record in the 100 breaststroke, suggested that in addition to returning her medals, all her performances from that time should be wiped from the record books. Both women swam under the tutelage of former SC Dynamo coach Rolf Glaser, and both women testified against him. Glaser, along with three other coaches and two doctors, stands accused of grievous bodily harm sustained from anabolic steroids administered by him to underage athletes without their knowledge.

Reactions to the announcements were mixed. Former East German shotputter Heidi Krieger, who because of the severe and irreversible side effects she experienced due to prolonged steroid use underwent a sex change to become Andreas Kreiger, offered to return his gold medal from the women's event at the 1986 European championships.

Four-time Olympic champion backstroker Roland Matthes, now an orthopaedist, was critical, however, saying that the "understanding has come a bit late." He maintained that for such a move to be meaningful, it should be worldwide. "Many young athletes got drawn into a whirlpool without realizing it. Why should they give their medals back?" German IOC member Thomas Bach, along with other high ranking German sport officials, greeted the announcement as "a very honorable step worthy of great respect." FINA Doping Panel Chairman Harm Beyer also welcomed the move, saying it was long overdue. "I wish that more athletes from that time would have the courage to take this step," he told the German Press Agency.

But other athletes who achieved success under the GDR colours were less enamoured with the proposal. Said Sylvia Gerasch, "I went through unbelievable stress and sacrifice, and all my doping tests were negative. For me there is no reason to give anything back."

Sylvia Gerasch, currently still active, won the 1986 World Championships representing the GDR and admitted receiving the famous "little blue pills."
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Swimmers Fear Sanctions

Former East German swimmers called to testify at the Berlin Doping Trials, yet who are still active in the sport themselves, may face eventual sanctions from FINA based on the content of their statements. And this despite a letter to FINA from the German Swimming Federation President, Rudiger Tretow, requesting a general amnesty for all athletes concerned. The announcement came after the testimony of witness/victim Syliva Gerasch, an active member of the German national team. Gerasch, who was world champion in the 100 breaststroke in 1986, said that, like many other swimmers, she had received the famous blue pills from her former coaches Dieter Lindemann and Volker Frischke. But the 29-year-old maintained that, with the exception of a few occasions, she had disposed of the pills in the pool or hidden them in her bathrobe pocket. Other witnesses in the trial still active as swimmers today are Katrin Meissner and Kerstin Kielgass.

Christiane Knacke in 1978
Click image for larger photo.

Based on the FINA rule DC 9.6, which states that "If any person, including a coach, trainer, or doctor, is found to have helped or advised a competitor in violation of these Rules related to Doping Control, or has knowledge of such a violation without reporting it to FINA, such person shall be suspended up to life," all those who admit to having taken the pills could be definitively banned from the sport. FINA's Honorary Secretary Gunnar Werner told the Berliner Zeitung that his only information had come from the newspapers, but that as far as he understood the rules, Gerasch was "at the very least" in danger of a suspension. It has since been announced, however, that the FINA Executive has decided to wait until the end of the trials before making any such decisions.

Interestingly, the FINA rule DC 1.3 states that, "An admission may be made either orally in a verifiable manner or in writing. For the purpose of the FINA Rules, a statement is not to be regarded as an admission where it was made more than twenty-one years after the fact to which it relates." If FINA is to stick to its own rules, things look grim for anyone who admits to any involvement with doping.

Gerasch's testimony in the Berlin court was reticent, and centred on the psychological damage she retained from her years on the GDR national team. She spoke of traumatic memories, of the continual pressure to perform and conform, physical duress, threats, and terrible loneliness....all before she reached the age of majority. Her words drove home the fact that the athletes themselves, whether they are truthful about their pasts or commit outright perjury, may lose sleep over the whole affair for months to come.

Theatre of the Absurd

As witness after witness files into the courtroom in Berlin's Moabit District, the stories begin to sound the same. There are many aspects of the women's testimonies that, whether we are concerned with 1973 or 1983, are the same.

They all received the so-called "vitamin pills." Some got them in piles, some got them in small glass beakers. They stood ready on a table after training, and the coaches observed the swimmers to ensure that they were actually swallowed. Some remember the colour, some don't. Some noticed changes in their bodies, some didn't. Some say it was a long time ago, they can't be sure. And so on.

But when Kerstin Kielgass sat before the judge, it was a wonder she could remember her name. The 1997 European Champion in the 800 freestyle, who still trains under the accused coach Volker Frischke, was able to recall all of her important swimming performances since 1983, and yet when the question of pills came up, the 28-year-old Kielgass couldn't remember a thing.

Kerstin Kielgass, 1997 European Champion in the 800 freestyle, still trains under the accused coach Volker Frischke. When the question of the pills came up, the 28-year-old Kielgass couldn't remember a thing.
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

"Can you remember having received any kind of medications? Any vitamin tablets?" asked Judge Brautigam.


The judge blinked, and rephrased the question. "I can't remember," came the answer.

A pause. An apparent case of general amnesia, that the judge met with further scepticism. "I'm not sure that such a memory gap will do you any favours...." he said, almost sweetly.

Had she ever received injections? Had she ever been required to provide a urine sample before travelling to a competition? Had she noticed any changes in her body?

No. No. No.

At which point the judge pulled out Kielgass' written statement, made to police investigators in August 1997. He read aloud the handwritten claim that yes indeed, she had received "vitamin tablets" regularly, and more often during training camps, when the demands on the body were greatest. Was all of this true as signed? queried the judge. Kielgass could only stare blankly. "If 's written there, then it must be," she said lamely. But she could remember nothing more. Could she explain why she had experienced a weight gain of 10 kg at the age of 15? "I liked to eat," she said flatly.

Of the fourteen other witnesses already heard, only one of them, Jane Lang, has had as much trouble remembering things that happened every day of their lives for five or six years or more. The problem unfolding in the courtroom was twofold: a swimmer required to testify against a coach with whom she is still presently working prefers to say nothing; and of course, the fear of repercussions from FINA lurks over the head of anyone who admits to having ingested an illegal drug. One musn't forget these women are training for Sydney 2000.

And so the exterior is cool, but Kielgass's strategy in the courtroom betrays an inner distress, a loss of logic in a situation that is in any case absurd; in choosing to go the route of amnesia, she undermined her own testimony of a year ago with inconsistent claims, something that escaped no one in the room.

The following witness, sprint freestyler Katrin Meissner, confirmed having taken pills, but denied ever having been confronted with the famous blue or lower dose pink pills otherwise known as the anabolic steroid Oral-Turinabol. When questioned further, Meissner confirmed having received anonymous death threats over the phone shortly after giving a television interview at the World Cup meet in Gelsenkirchen in March. The 25-year-old told the interviewer "nothing new," she said, but did mention that she had received tablets like all the others. Shortly thereafter she received two calls from an unidentified man who told her she had better be careful when she went out outside the house, and that she didn't have long to live. She insisted, however, that the threats had in no way influenced her testimony. "I don't believe the two things are necessarily related," she said simply.

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