Saturday, July 05, 2008

How Blue Pills Turned Heidi Krieger Into A Man

TransGriot Note: I posted a 2004 New York Times story about transman Andreas Krieger's story back in January in conjunction with a post I wrote about the seeming reluctance of the IOC to snatch up the steroid fueled medals of East Germans, but noting that they and the IAAF have no problems going after peeps of color in similar circumstances. They wasted no time knocking on Marion Jones' door to collect her Olympic medals. The London Times did a story on Andreas Krieger that I'll share with you as well.

by Matthew Syed
The Times (London)
July 5, 2008

In July 1979, Heidi Krieger received the letter she had been longing for - an invitation to join the fabled Dynamo Sports Club and Boarding School in East Berlin. For a 13-year-old who had recently fallen in love with shot putting at her local athletics club, it was a dream come true.

She arrived at her new school four months later, full of hope, and was inducted into a schedule of two school periods and two training sessions per day. Towards the end of her second year her coaches informed her that she was to be put on a course of bright blue pills. They told her that they were vitamin tablets that would keep her healthy and protect her from the sometimes chill temperatures during training.

Krieger was grateful for the concern of her coaches; she took it as solid evidence that they were pleased with her progress. Almost immediately, her body began to change. Her muscles expanded and her face, nose and hands started to enlarge. Her mood, too, went haywire. One moment she was afflicted with depression, then, in an instant, she would be overwhelmed with feelings of aggression. Her girlfriends also found strange things happening to their bodies and minds: hair sprouted across their bellies and faces, their voices became deeper and their libidos swung violently.

But the coaches and doctors soothed the concerns of the girls and their parents, explaining that the strange alterations were a consequence of extra training and would be short-lived. Anyone who voiced doubts or concerns was told that they would be punished if they persisted with questioning the wisdom of their coaches. This was East Germany at the apotheosis of communism: citizens, young and old, did as they were told.

Slowly the number of blue pills increased so that, after a few years, Krieger was being fed five or six tablets a day and given regular injections of what her coaches told her was glucose. The teenager seemed, even to herself, a different person: aggressive, depressive and with anatomical and facial characteristics almost unrecognisable compared with the slight girl who arrived at Dynamo with such high hopes.

But while Krieger's life fell apart, her shot putting soared. At the European Championships in Stuttgart in 1986 she reached the pinnacle of her career, winning gold with a putt of 21.10 metres. It ought to have been a moment of celebration, a vindication of her many years of hard work.

But it was not. Krieger was in despair, out of sympathy for herself and her body, unable to cope with crippling mood swings and chronic pain. She retired in 1990 to join the ranks of the unemployed, a broken woman.

It is a beautiful midsummer's day in the eastern German town of Magdeburg and in an army surplus store on the high street a middle-aged man is standing behind the till. Business is slow and the man exudes a faint but unmistakable air of loneliness. He is tall, with a large, round face, powerful forearms and huge hands. His dark hair, brushed back from the forehead, is thinning a little; his four-day stubble is shaped in a goatee.

His face brightens as I come through the door and he bounds across to shake hands, his face breaking into a wide smile. He is friendly and tactile, with a deep, booming voice and a surplus of boyish charm. At the back of the shop is a small kitchen and he gestures me through to join him for a coffee. The room is full of stock, but he is not trying to sell anything. Instead he goes to the cupboard under the sink and heaves out a red crate. It is full of medals, images and other sporting mementoes. He pulls from the pile a large photo of Heidi Krieger being presented with the European Championships gold medal in 1986 and grins as he examines it. I look from the face of the man to the face of the woman in the photograph and the truth is strange but indisputable: they are one and the same person.

It took many years for Andreas Krieger - the name Heidi chose after her sex-change operation in 1997 - to discover what had been perpetrated at the Dynamo Club. Top-secret documents relating to the sporting system in East Germany were uncovered only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and it took almost a decade to excavate the full, mind-bending story.

At the heart of the story were those bright blue pills. Krieger discovered that they were not vitamin tablets but androgenic-anabolic steroids called Oral-Turinabol, powerful prescription drugs that built muscle and induced male sexual characteristics.

“We did not question the pills because in GDR times you were expected to trust your coaches,” Krieger says. “Nobody thought, ‘Is this dangerous for me?' The coaches said the pills were important to keep us fit and healthy. I did not even consider the possibility that they might be harmful. We were doing incredibly tough power training, so I thought that was the reason I was growing more muscles and strength.”

Krieger was not alone in being fed the blue pills. According to the secret files, more than 10,000 athletes were doped with Oral-Turinabol over a 20-year period. Extensive experimentation by East German doctors revealed that the steroids had the greatest impact on the sporting performance of women, who naturally lacked androgens (male hormones).

Between 1968 and 1976 East Germany leapt from nine gold medals to 40 at the Olympic Games, propelled by the unprecedented success of their female athletes. “You could train without limits,” Krieger says. “We were able to do heavy weightlifting for hour after hour without feeling tired or having to take a long time for recovery. Over the course of one week I estimated that I lifted more than a tonne.”

The political establishment kept a lid on the pervasive doping programme by forcing coaches and sports doctors to sign confidentiality agreements and through the active involvement of more than 3,000 moles who reported dissent to the Stasi, the East German secret police.

But concealing the damage inflicted on the athletes was not so easy. In his regular reports to his Stasi handler, Manfred Höppner, the chief sports doctor, documented cases of extreme clitoris growth, severe acne and hair growth. So deep were the voices of the top female athletes, he decreed that they should not give television or radio interviews. He also documented potentially fatal damage to the liver resulting from steroid use.

Krieger, who has liver complications, says: “They did not care at all about the dangers or the damage. We were the guinea pigs in some huge experiment that was undertaken to build the prestige of the political classes and the communist system. It is almost unbelievable that they were prepared to sacrifice so many of the young and vulnerable for their own ends.”

By the time Krieger arrived at the Dynamo Club, the doping officials - intoxicated by the success of their athletes - had taken steroid violations to scarcely believable levels. An average teenage girl produces about half a milligram of testosterone per day. Krieger, by the middle of her career, was being fed 30 milligrams of anabolic steroids each day, far in excess of Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter, at the height of his drugs programme.

State scientists also developed STS 646, an anabolic steroid that caused male characteristics in women at a rate 16 times that of Oral-Turinabol. It was distributed to coaches even though it had not been approved for human use, not even in stage one clinical trials. Even Höppner expressed his doubts, telling the Stasi that he was not willing to be held responsible. But Manfred Ewald, the president of the sports federation at the time, insisted that they were necessary and ordered an additional 63,000 tablets. Krieger was probably one of the recipients.

Although Krieger's unease over his sexual identity pre-dated the doping programme, he says that the androgenic abuse left him with little choice but to have a sex-change operation. “I had no sympathy with my body, it had changed beyond all recognition,” he says. “It was as though they had killed Heidi. Becoming Andreas was the next logical step.”

Krieger had surgery in 1997 - then prayed for justice to take its course upon those who had wreaked havoc with his life.

On May 2, 2000 Höppner and Ewald, the masterminds of the doping programme, were brought before a court in Berlin to face charges of actual bodily harm. Court documents revealed that former athletes had a range of medical complications ranging from cancer to psychological trauma and from liver damage to pregnancy complications. More than 140 East German athletes lined up to testify, hoping to gain closure on one of sport's most sinister episodes.

For Krieger, however, the trial set the stage for yet another chapter in his tumultuous life. For on the other side of the public gallery was Ute Krause, a talented female swimmer, who was also there to testify about her suffering at the hands of the East German sporting system. As their eyes met across the packed courtroom, the world moved.

“I saw Andreas in court and it was, like, wow,” Krause tells me when the three of us meet for dinner in the evening. “At the end of each day the athletes would get together in small groups to talk about what we had seen in court. I immediately clicked with Andreas. We shared similar experiences and could empathise with each other. We talked and talked. I knew he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.”

Tall, with piercing eyes and a warm smile, Krause also suffered horrifically from the effects of Oral-Turinabol. “I was very good at swimming at school and was invited to join SC Magdeburg in 1973,” she says. “The coaches were very happy with my progress and in 1977 started to give me the blue pills. I put on 15 kilos in weeks. I thought it was because I was eating too much and I became bulimic. I felt like I was living in somebody else's body.”

After a suicide attempt in 1983, when she woke covered in vomit after an overdose, Krause managed to escape from swimming, finding a new job as a trainee nurse. It was there that she learnt the shattering truth.

“I was looking in on a patient and saw those same blue pills. I could hardly believe my eyes,” she says. “I had been told they were vitamins, but I discovered they were powerful prescription drugs for patients recovering from chemotherapy. It was unbelievable. When the call came to testify against the leaders of the doping regime, I knew that I wanted to be there to tell my story.”

Krieger and Krause have mixed feelings about the sentences handed down to Höppner and Ewald - the latter was given a suspended sentence of 22 months and the former 18 months' probation. “It was not as severe as the athletes had hoped, but it was enough that they were convicted,” Krause says. “It provides at least some comfort that they did not evade all responsibility for their actions.”

After the trial, Krieger moved to Berlin to live with Krause and her daughter from a previous relationship. “We married at Hundisburg Castle [near Magdeburg] in front of 70 guests,” Krause says, glancing with a warm smile towards Krieger. I ask if she still struggles with depression. “Since meeting Andreas it has got less and less,” she says. “With his help I will overcome it.” Krieger invariably refers to Krause as “my wife”, as though he has long wished to use those words and has yet to exhaust the novelty factor. “All this gold,” he says, pointing to his many medals, “has no meaning. They are doping medals, not sporting medals. This gold,” he says caressing his wedding ring, “means more than all those medals put together.”

Krieger requires regular injections of male hormones to maintain his stubble and other male characteristics. His wife - who administers the injections - comments wryly that Krieger receives male hormones voluntarily, having previously been duped into taking them. The irony is not lost on Krieger, who responds with a huge belly laugh.

It is, perhaps, the ultimate twist in one of sport's most mind-bending stories.

The victims

East German athletes whose lives were wrecked by doping

George Sievers

Collapsed and died, aged 16, at poolside in 1973 while training. His parents were not given access to the autopsy report. Documents uncovered after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 revealed that his death was probably caused by a ruptured heart from steroid overloads.

Catherine Menschner

Had to retire early from swimming because of complications from steroid injections. She suffered permanent damage to her spine and reproductive organs.

Birgit Heukrodt

A swimming champion who was diagnosed with a liver tumour in 1993. She became a renowned surgeon.

Christiane Knacke-Sommer

The swimmer, testifying at the trial of sports doctors and coaches in 2000, pointed at the defendants, shouting: “They destroyed my body and my mind. They even poisoned my medal.” She then threw the bronze medal she had won in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow to the floor.

Rica Reinisch

Won three swimming gold medals at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, quit the sport in 1982 and was diagnosed with ovarian cysts because of high levels of testosterone in her system. She suffered several miscarriages.

How East Germany got away with it

Despite more than 10,000 athletes being systematically doped by the East German regime over a 20-year period, only one athlete was caught by sport’s antidrugs authorities. This happened at the European Cup in 1977, when Ilona Slupianek, a shot putter from the Berlin Dynamo Club, was stripped of her gold medal after testing positive for steroids.

Manfred Höppner, the chief sports doctor, responded by requiring every athlete selected for an overseas competition to have a secret drugs test in advance.

Urine samples from all over East Germany were transported back to the laboratory in Kreischa, creating huge bottlenecks before leading competitions. Any athlete testing positive was refused permission to travel.

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