Germany forgets its past

Photo: Patrick Seeger

Freiburg University, where a doping programme was once in place. Photo: Patrick Seeger


The example of the Freiburg University sports medicine department shows that Germany, the big sports nation, does not want to face its doping past. Andreas Strepenick takes readers through the story about how a decade-long fight to reveal a secret past in German sport got stuck.

German athletes are extremely successful. They won 14 gold medals at the XXIII. Winter Olympics in South Korea - more than ever before. Sport is very important in Germany, however, the proud sports nation has problems handling its darker sides. The country still does not want to face its doping past. Scientists who for the past decade have been studying the sports medicine institution in Freiburg have felt just how difficult it is to clear up this doping history.

The German Minister of Interior Thomas de Maizière seemed to be helpless. He could not understand what went wrong in the Freiburg investigation. "The result is bad," he said in 2016.

Like de Maizière, not many understand much. It is still a mystery. An investigation commission with internationally renowned scientists stopped their investigation in March 2016 after nine years of work. The researchers resigned in protest. The University of Freiburg, that had ordered the investigation, had to defend itself against accusations that it had obstructed the work of the research group, which was centred around the criminologist Letizia Paoli from the University of Leuven in Belgium. Sometime later, the university published a number of individual reports by former member of the commission Andreas Singler – against the stated will of the historian, who also felt he was treated badly by the university. In the spring of 2017, a decade-long battle to reveal a secret past ended. Now, there is nothing but silence about the question of how the sports medicine facilities of the city were turned into a doping centre in western Germany.

For years, the media only reported on the dispute between researchers in the investigation commission and the university. The group around Letizia Paoli lamented deceptions. For instance, that important files had been hidden for her. The university and its clinic as well as the responsible Ministry of Science of the state Baden-Wuerttemberg in Stuttgart complained about ever new delays of the investigation. It never came to an end. However, this was largely due to the complexity of the subject.

Today, we know that Freiburg sports physicians doped German athletes for four decades. The scheme ended in the spring of 2007, when the news magazine ‘Der Spiegel’ revealed doping practices around the former cycling team Telekom / T-Mobile – practices controlled by doctors at the Medical Center – University of Freiburg. Unclear to this day is the full extent of what happened in Freiburg. How many sports doctors participated? Which sports were affected? How many German and foreign top athletes were doped?

The dispute between the researchers and the university is one side of the story. But there are also structural reasons why it is so hard to get to the bottom of the case today. The researchers cannot be blamed for it, not even the university and their clinic. Here are six reasons why anti-doping experts at the University of Freiburg are still biting their teeth.

1. The silence of the doctors
Not a single sports physician has opened up and told what really happened in Freiburg. Three have announced their intensions to write a book. But no book has been published. The former top sports physician Professor Armin Klümper emigrated to South Africa in 2001. Today we know that he was the top doper in West German competitive sports. But he is silent. Professor Joseph Keul, the leading German Olympic doctor until his death in 2000, denied systematic doping in Freiburg until the end. The former cycling physicians Andreas Schmid, Lothar Heinrich and Georg Huber have been silent or have denied doping. And all the other German and foreign sports doctors, who grew up in the "Freiburg School", some of whom are still active in sports all over the world, stay quiet.

2. The sports associations
When it comes to doping in other countries of the world, German sports officials have always held high moral standards. When Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for the anabolic steroid Stanozolol at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, officials in West Germany complained loudly about the alleged fraud in fair sport. Today, we know that in that same year, sports physicians from Freiburg University were doping German Olympic athletes also with stanozolol. They just did it well enough for no one to find out.

German sport always perceived itself as a champion of cleanliness and fairness. This is still the case today. The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), for example, called on Russia to fully investigate its alleged state doping system. The DOSB also demanded tough sanctions against Russian athletes. On the other hand, when it came to clarifying the doping past in their own country, top German and professional associations have always behaved cautiously. Even the latest research project of the DOSB got stuck halfway. The group of scientists commissioned by the DOSB in 2009, headed by Berlin Professor Giselher Spitzer and sports historian Erik Eggers, complained about serious harassment when their work ended - just like their Freiburg colleagues did.

Particularly obvious is the general disinterest from the German Cycling Federation (BDR). Since 2007, the top organisation of cycling has confined itself to explaining the past as the "dark era" and prefers to look ahead. Inquiries about Freiburg doctors’ activities at the BDR since the 1970s are usually answered in the following way: Unfortunately, there are no longer documents available. However, especially in road and track cycling there is much evidence of a doping system stemming from Freiburg.

Armin Klümper served as senior medical officer of the BDR in the 1970s and 1980s and allegedly provided whole squads with anabolic steroids and other doping substances. Freiburg doctors and doctors from other sports medicine institutions in Germany helped him - without ever being prosecuted. Former track cyclists like Robert Lechner accuse Klümper’s successor at the BDR, the former Freiburg sports physician and BDR doctor Georg Huber, for also facilitating doping. Huber himself denies this until today.

3. Other associations and institutions
Other associations and institutions in Germany still see no reason to make their own - and above all, independent - investigations. This goes for the Federal Ministry of the Interior in Berlin as well as for ministries of the state of Baden-Württemberg, which were responsible for the Freiburg sports medicine and paid millions of grants to them. The physician Joseph Keul, for example, still formally applied for taxpayers' money for anabolic steroids experiments on athletes in the beginning of the 1970s. How much money flowed to Freiburg from the provincial and federal capital - and more importantly, for what purposes - is still unclear. There was German taxpayer-financed doping in Freiburg. This can be proven by looking at individual examples. But nobody knows the full scope of it.

The history of institutions such as the German Society for Sports Medicine and Prevention (DGSP) also raises questions. The DGSP is the umbrella organisation of sports doctors in Germany. Three former DGSP presidents were simultaneously head of sports medicine at the Freiburg University Clinic: Professors Herbert Reindell (died in 1990), Joseph Keul (died in 2000) and Hans-Hermann Dickhuth. Again, it was never independently examined if and how the dominance of Freiburg top doctors impacted the anti-doping policy of the DGSP.

4. The history of sport
Sport has a long tradition in Germany. The first sports clubs were founded almost 200 years ago, the first sports associations also in the 19th century. Those in charge of sport are proud of this tradition and celebrate anniversaries with pomp and circumstance. Nobody wants to remember the history of doping. It lacks a culture of remembrance. The state, the sports associations and museums prefer to stay silent. Not a single official institution in Germany collects and archives doping documents, references, testimonies, examination and case files, commission reports, media reports and other evidence of a doping structure in Germany.

But such an institution would be important. It could be a meeting place for scientists, politicians and journalists. There are a number of private initiatives to build a self-directed doping archive. The German Association helping victims of doping maintains an international collection of documents. Through nearly five decades of fight against doping, Professor Werner Franke from Heidelberg University has collected dozens of shelf meters of files and now makes them available to the public. On a private initiative, Monika Mischke has collected a wealth of documentation on doping, especially in cycling, which she publishes on her website These people act on their own initiative, voluntarily and at their own expense.

In Germany, sports doctors, sports teachers and sports scientists are educated at numerous different universities, departments and institutes. But there is not a single research facility that explicitly deals with the history, the present and the future of doping.

5. State resources
Freiburg sports physicians have been associated with doping at least since the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. In the initial phase, they openly provided athletes with anabolic steroids, for example. When in 1977 the sports federations declared that doping should be prohibited, the Freiburg doctors just continued. They just stopped talking about it publicly. State investigators have been very reluctant to look into doping of top athletes in all these decades - if at all. They faced massive resistance. For example, in the 1980s, a federal investigator from Baden-Württemberg tried to investigate Armin Klümper and his doping practices, but in vain. He was stopped by people in higher places. Klümper was protected - by his prominent patients, but also by the state.

Klümper’s colleague Joseph Keul from Freiburg, former head of the institute, ex-Olympic medical officer and ex-president of the German Society for Sports Medicine and Prevention, seemed to be even better protected until the year 2000. He did not have to be afraid of investigators. "Keul knew very well that prosecutors would stay away from him," says the Heidelberg doping fighter Franke. When the German Federal Criminal Police Office - under the pressure of media reports - in the autumn of 2007 searched the rooms of the Freiburg Sports Medicine at the University Hospital, one of the investigators said to a small circle: "This entire investigation is pointless". None of the doctors would really be punished. That was the truth.

In 2012, the public prosecutor's office in Freiburg discontinued an investigation into the doping physician Lothar Heinrich due to a lack of findings that could lead to sanctions. Andreas Schmid, his former colleague at the University Hospital, got away with a small fine. Both kept their license. To this date, no West German sports physician has had to go to prison for facilitating doping - although the state has tightened the laws against doping continuously.

6. The sport reporters
We know a lot about Freiburg today. We owe this to the brave athletes and coaches who have opened up. We also owe a lot of our knowledge to reporters who dared to report it. Unfortunately, very few sports journalists in Germany deal intensively with the dark side of sport. Investigative research is the exception, not the rule. Most reporters have been trained to talk about competitions as excitingly as possible and to highlight the attractiveness of sport. Many love sports.

Thomas Kistner, investigative journalist of the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" and author of revealing books on FIFA and doping in football, once wrote that most sports reporters are basically "fans who have made it over the barrier". Kistner, and not only him, observes "a sticky closeness" between sports and journalism. Critical distance would be helpful, but rarely occurs in practice. In the ten years of investigative work in Freiburg, all the major German media outlets were only interested in the current events. Very few journalists took the trouble of adding the history of this investigation - and the resistance it met - continuously, knowledgeably and committed. Instead, the media always sent new reporters into the race, who rushed to a sub-aspect and quickly forgot the subject. The number of journalists who lasted until the end is in the single-digit range.

Three suggestions
The attempt to clarify the Freiburg doping past has not failed. But it hasn’t succeeded either. Somewhere in the middle it got stuck. Here are three suggestions on how to proceed:

First, the German state and German sport have to confront the doping past. They would have to establish a central research institute with a comprehensive archive. This could be in Freiburg.

Secondly, a ‘one-stop-shop’ should be created for victims of doping - a medical facility that is aware of the long-term consequences of drug misuse in sport and is able to help former athletes. That would be a task worthy of the Medical Center – University of Freiburg. The doping historian Andreas Singler has made a corresponding proposal.

Thirdly, the public needs a comprehensive but easy-to-understand account of what really happened in Freiburg. People wants to know the truth.


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