The Doping Paradise of Freiburg

Photo: Patrick Seeger

Photo: Patrick Seeger

Freiburg used to be the centre for doping in the Federal Republic of Germany. For eight years now, a Commission has tried to fathom the entire scale of this scandal.

Freiburg, the former paradise for the doping community. For half a century, athletes could get here what they needed. This small university town in the southwest of Germany is close to the border with France and Switzerland. It is idyllic, popular with tourists and in safe distance from the country's metropolitan centres. Curious journalists are scarce. Therefore, Freiburg was the ideal place for a secret doping programme. For five decades, the operators of the Freiburg sports medicine department were free to act. They were researching drugs, establishing doping plans, supplying sports associations with drugs in order to enhance performance - and sometimes they even doped entire teams.

All of this has been unearthed during the past eight years. In 2007,  ‘Der Spiegel’, the largest news magazine in Europe, unveiled the systematic doping of the former German cycling team Telekom / T-Mobile - controlled by doctors from the University Hospital in Freiburg. This hospital and the university itself have since then been at the centre of a scandal, the extent of which is only very slowly becoming visible.

It is now clear that the Freiburg doctors have doped not only cyclists, but also track and field athletes, soccer players, wrestlers, canoeists – and many other athletes in Olympic sports disciplines. It is now clear that doping at Team Telekom / T-Mobile was not an isolated case, no exception, no glitch in an otherwise clean system. It is now clear that intensive doping did not only take place in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), the socialist part of Germany, but also in the capitalist West. The doping programmes also did not end in 1990, i.e. the year of reunification and the end of the East-West conflict. Everything went perfectly, so everybody just kept going. It is now possible to document almost uninterrupted doping going on in Freiburg during the period from 1952 until 2007.

A case that keeps getting more and more complex
How could this go on successfully for so long? Who knew about it? Why did politicians, sports officials and ministries support the Freiburg sports medicine in all those years and defended it against any outside attack? Why weren't actions taken against these doctors given all the warnings by the West German anti-doping fighters like Werner Franke and Gerhard Treutlein since the 1970s? All is to be cleared up by an independent investigation commission. The university itself was put under pressure by the media in 2007. Since the end of 2009, this Commission has been headed by the internationally renowned criminologist Letizia Paoli from the University of Leuven in Belgium. Since then, Paoli and her scientists have probed deeper and deeper, always finding new evidence – and having to fight growing opposition.

At first, it seemed just to be about doping, just a few doctors and sports. Meanwhile, the issue is much wider. It concerns the question of the role played by West German politicians and officials and why they were trying to prevent any attempt of enlightenment. It concerns how prosecutors and state investigators gave in to the former top sports physicians Joseph Keul and Armin Klümper. It concerns the involvement of public servants in ministries of Baden-Württemberg and the Federal Ministry of the Interior. It concerns concealed doping research, corruption, surreptitious professors’ titles, hidden and destroyed documents and several dead patients. The ‘Freiburg Case’ is getting increasingly more complicated.

The scandal has become so complex that only very few people understand how far the probing has already progressed and which questions the research group led by Paoli and the anti-doping experts Gerhard Treutlein (Heidelberg), Fritz Sörgel (Nuremberg), Hans Hoppeler (Bern), Perikles Simon (Mainz) and Hellmut Mahler (Dusseldorf) still have to answer. Outsiders wonder why the Commission, even after eight years, still hasn't achieved its goal. However, it is not important for them to deliver a bunch of expert opinions and as much paper as possible. What is important is that they clear up the whole thing and make comprehensible the entire structure of the scandal.

Investigations challenged
When Paoli took over the Commission by the end of 2009, she found almost nothing. Her predecessors had concentrated on doping at Telekom and in cycling. When Paoli took over, she realized that many important files had disappeared and that even the assignment of her research group had been formulated very strangely, too. The researchers were e.g. only supposed to deal with Joseph Keul, former top sports doctor and senior Olympic doctor of the Federal Republic of Germany, who died in 2000. Paoli was not allowed to deal with Armin Klümper, a once world-famous sports doctor who has been a resident of South Africa since 2001. In 2012, Paoli accused the university of having manipulated the assignment of her commission from the outset. This is being denied by the university. Paoli also discovered that one of the university's legal advisers kept five boxes of documents on Joseph Keul deposited at home in her apartment for almost five years. In order to hide them from the Commission? The university is silent on this allegation.

The criminologist and mafia expert had but more resistance to overcome. From that moment on, as the university allowed her also to deal with Armin Klümper's past as a doping doctor, she searched for other files – for example, in the prosecutor's office in Freiburg. In the 1980s the police had investigated Klümper, due to fraud in connection with the settling of recipes. However, these files – approximately 60 binders, or five meters of shelf space – seemed to have vanished for two and a half years. Only with a new manager at the prosecutor's office would this mountain of papers suddenly appear. Other files were shredded – for example, files on a female patient of Klümper’s who died as a result of a treatment.

Meanwhile, Paoli's group had gathered enough evidence to be able to rewrite the history of the alleged always doping-free sports in Western Germany. There is a problem, however: She is running out of time. Already since 2010, the university, her contractor, has repeatedly called on Paoli to please finish her work. And also the Ministry of Science of the state government in Baden-Württemberg responsible for the investigation puts the pressure on. But Paoli steadfastly refuses to conclude her investigation before the whole truth has become known.

Freiburg had doping on the curriculum
There are many indications that leading sports politicians and sports officials in West Germany since the 1970s were quite aware of the doings of the Freiburg sports doctors. The Cold War was on. Soviet Union and GDR athletes came to a river of medals – on doping substances. Western countries wanted to counter steer in order not to be left behind in the hunt for sports achievements. The doctors in Freiburg seemed ideally suited to carry out the counter strike. Not least since the Freiburg sports medicine department has always been particularly renowned. The department of sports medicine at the University Hospital was founded 90 years ago. This probably makes it the world's oldest sports medicine facility embedded in a university. This so-called ‘Freiburg School’ made an international name for itself. Many foreign doctors – including doctors from Austria and Spain –  were trained in Freiburg.

Trained in what exactly? It is a stated fact that doping was part of the curriculum for a very long time. As early as the 1950s, the Freiburg scientists researched the effect of methamphetamine in sports. This stimulant was used during World War II. It was administered to Luftwaffe pilots and tank drivers of the Wehrmacht in order for them to stay awake longer. But the doctors in Freiburg even explored the effects of anabolic steroids at a very early stage. They explored their effect even before their colleagues in the socialist GDR.

Officially, the objective in Freiburg would of course always be something else. The doctors argued that their concern would be the health of the West German athletes. Officially it was only about performance measurements, training plans and the treatment of injuries. In actual fact – and this makes the investigations so difficult – some health professionals have participated in doping programs, but others have not. Herbert Reindell, the head of the department after World War II, earned himself a place in history based on his research on athletes' hearts. He demonstrated that an enlarged heart evolved through competitive sport does not necessarily cause health problems.

Reindell was certainly no hardcore representative of the secret doping world. But he did after all allow physicians like Joseph Keul to research the effect of drugs on able-bodied athletes while he was the director in the 1970s. The tests involving anabolic steroids were even funded by the Federal Ministry of the Interior in Bonn (now Berlin), i.e. the German taxpayer. This is confirmed by documents that have surfaced only two years ago from an archive. Even more explosive documents were revealed to the Commission in the winter of 2014/15 in Freiburg. They show that Armin Klümper, the once world-famous ‘Doc’, for four decades ago systematically provided the German Cycling Federation, i.e. an entire sports federation, with anabolic steroids – possibly including youth and junior teams.

In the 1970s and 1980s, up to 90 percent of the West German athletes regularly went to Freiburg and were catered for by the Freiburg doctors. But which ones did actually dope athletes? Few want to know the truth today. The German sports associations are reluctant and hardly interested in supporting the investigation. The University of Freiburg and its hospital dread new negative headlines. As if its image isn't damaged enough. Most of what we know today, only came to light after pressure from the media. This probably won't change. Unless the Commission around Letizia Paoli will eventually manage to finish their work. This might bring about, what some have feared for a long time: That behind the Freiburg Case lies the largest scandal in the history of West German Sports.


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