Another black hour in sports


By Andreas Singler
20 years ago the German heptathlete Birgit Dressel died from drug poisoning. She did not die because of the lack of medical expertise – she died because of the excess of it. Has sport learned from this?

20 years ago, the German heptathlete, Birgit Dressel, German champion and fourth in the European Championship, died from a toxic-allergic shock. She died on the 10th of April 1987, with more than 100 different medicaments in her body. The month before her death, these drugs had started to take their effect on Birgit Dressel’s body.

The year before her death, Birgit Dressler had a rather peculiar meeting with German pharmacist Horst Klehr. Klehr was the first to speak openly about doping in sports. He also made the first German list of prohibited substances, and in the 70s, he conducted doping tests at competitions and was not afraid to go public with the results, accusing team officials and doctors of taking part in Western doping practices.

In 1986, he had a meeting with Birgit Dressler and told her about the dangers of drug abuse, since her physique seemed to have changed remarkably within a short period of time. Horst Klehr wanted to warn the athlete about the dangerous side effects of hormone doping. However, Dressler didn’t seem to listen to his advice. One year later she died from a toxic allergic incident.

Uncertainties about what killed Birgit Dressel
To this day, uncertainties about what set off this incident still remain. Some say that an overdose of metamizol – a pain medicine - given to her the day she died was contributory to a shock that led to multiple-organ collapse. Others claim that her previous year-long treatment with different substances and medicines advanced the development of a toxic allergic incident.

The latter theory puts her year-long doctor, Armin Klümper, in a dubious light. The doctor had given Birgit Dressel several different treatments in his clinic in Freiburger Mooswald, and was acting like a dreamy artist balancing between madness and genius. Hundreds of shots and countless drugs of questionable character were given, and Dressler did not think it would do any harm to her body.

At this point, Dressel’s health had been in a bad state for a long time, even though her athletic results – thanks to Professor Klümper’s prescription of anabolic steroids in 1986 – were better than ever. She came in fourth at the European Championships in 1986, and with a world record she substantiated the German hope for medals at the World Championship in 1987 and the Olympics in 1988.

Due to these circumstances, the shock at her death was enormous, and the fear among athletes started to grow. Many of them spontaneously flushed all their medications down the toilet. However, it did not take long for the medicine cupboard to get refilled. 

Doping mentality in elite sport survives
Head of the National Committee for Elite sports, Helmut Meyer, tried to establish the belief that Birgit Dressel’s death had nothing to do with anabolic steroids. This way, the doping mentality in West German elite sports survived in spite of the tragic death of Birgit Dressel.

The fact that there is no clear-cut explanation for her death helped athletes to believe that this was just an isolated episode, which was very unlikely to happen again. Therefore, critical self reflection did not seem necessary – at least that was what elite sport thought. Almost everything continued as if nothing had happened. On all levels, the wheels of the western doping machine continued to influence sports. The standards for the Olympics in 1988 were higher than ever – without doping you wouldn’t win.

It was startling to see that the public institutions did not use the death of a young female athlete to take actions to protect at least the seeded competitors. The public prosecutor did not see any cause for investigations based on grievous bodily harm, but found that “a demonstrable damage to the health, proved through consent of the victims would have been justified.” Fraud was also a reason that there was no investigation carried out.

The state prosecution even denied that there was a moral conflict in the medical world, when it came to the way doping substances were handled by the doctors, and in the German public there was no clear rejection of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. 

Drugs are meant for recovery and relief
The state prosecution even stood up for the doping doctors, saying that the drugs administered and handed out by, for instance, Dr. Klümper, were meant for recovery and relief against illnesses. Those in the West who wanted to dope themselves could do so, without the fear of punishment. You just had to call it ‘therapy.’

After the death of Birgit Dressel, one might assume that the medical world would be more critical towards medicine’s role in sports. However, this did not happen. While in the process of denying one of the theories of her death caused by doping - a denial that favoured the already widespread use of anabolic steroids - many medics critical of doping believed, that if control was not possible, then you ought to legalize doping under medical supervision.

Therefore the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sportsmedizin und Prävention The German Society of Sports Medicine and Prevention  made a questionable ‘therapy‘ window, inconsistent with the doping regulations – a kind of doping legalization “light”. Thereby, doctors could set up a therapeutic arrangement without violating doping regulations.

When it comes to prescription of doping, the question about the medical freedom in sports is highly relevant. Today, due to the massive medical permits, doping is becoming the rule more than the exception. For more than 20 years, we have been told that Birgit Dressel was not the victim of her own personal doping or medical abuse. She was filled with drugs under medical supervision. She did not die because of the lack of medical expertise – she died because of the excess of it. 

This article by German freelance journalist Andreas Singler was published in Berliner Zeitung and in radio Deutschlandfunk. Translation by Rasmus Mørk Mortensen

  • Manzoor Qazi, 24.08.2009 09:49:
    High time to legalise Doping under medical supervision.Other wisewe are going to losemore athletes.

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