The Rise and Fall of Gerd Bonk, the World Champion of Doping
East German weightlifter Gerd Bonk took the highest documented quantity of anabolic steroids in his quest for a gold medal. He was a victim of the greatest, widest reaching, and most sociopathic scandal in sports history.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0929-0013 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
As part of VICE Sports' Olympic preview, we take a look at the sports War on Doping.
Gerd Bonk approached the bar with an almost pained expression, as though suddenly sad. It was his third and final attempt at the clean and jerk in the 1976 Olympics, and the bar was set to 235 kilograms (about 518 pounds)—17.5 kilograms less than he'd lifted at the European Championships three months prior, when he had set a world record. The East German super heavyweight stood for a moment, eyes closed, head tilted back, face to the sky. Perhaps he was praying.
Then he opened his eyes, bent at the waist, and gripped the bar. In the kind of swift and efficient motion one doesn't expect from a wide-bodied, six-foot-one, 320-pound hoss, he hoisted the bar to his shoulders, the part of the lift known as the "clean"; from there, he "jerked" the weight, thrusting it quickly above his head. After a moment teetering slightly under the heavy load, arms extended, Bonk dropped the bar and for the first time acknowledged the roaring Montreal crowd. He raised both hands. Smirked. It may not have been a world record, but Bonk had just won Olympic silver.
Bonk was one of 22 weightlifters from the Eastern Bloc to medal at the 1976 Games. Athletes from NATO countries, by contrast, won just two medals. To see the world's strongest man lose out on the gold was high drama, but Bonk's defeat only got more fascinating with time. Thirteen years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it emerged that he had used an unfathomable amount of steroids—and still didn't win.
"He was not just the world [record holder in] weightlifting," Herbert Fischer-Solms, a retired German radio journalist who spent much of his career reporting on doping and knew Bonk, told me by phone. "He was also the world champion of doping—given to him by his trainers, functionaries, and his doctors."
In the 1970s, the German Democratic Republic started a secret doping program called State Plan 14.25, a vast government conspiracy that oversaw the delivery of performance enhancing drugs to roughly 10,000 athletes, many of them prepubescent—one as young as nine years old—and often without their knowledge. Long before the Russian doping lab was passing athlete urine through a hole in a wall, the GDR set the bar for state-sponsored doping. State Plan 14.25 remains the greatest, widest reaching, and most sociopathic scandal in sports history. Brigitte Berendonk, an expert on East German doping, has called State Plan 14.25 the "Manhattan Project of sports."
If the plan was the Manhattan Project, Gerd Bonk was the atom bomb.
Bonk was born in 1951 in the tiny village of Limbach, Saxony. It was a time of rebuilding and uncertainty in East Germany. Just a few years prior, the country of about 18 million had been part of a Nazi empire that nearly conquered all of Europe. Now it was a communist state still in ruins, run by a single political party, the Socialist Unity Party, and struggling to come to terms with its new place in the world.
In an attempt to reestablish its international relevance, East Germany turned to sports. The country built a network of elite sports academies, called Kinder-und Jugendsportschule (or KJS), where the GDR molded its young athletes.
Bonk was one of those kids who excelled at anything he tried, the kind you picked first at recess. When the Iron Curtain came down in 1961, he was a student at a KJS in the city of Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz). In 1965, he set a youth record in shot put at the Spartan Games, an annual Cold War national athletic competition. The following year, when a member of the local weightlifting team dropped out, Bonk stepped in and was an immediate success. In 1971, he won his first national championship in weightlifting.
By this point, Bonk was likely already on steroids, although exactly when he started doping is still unclear—Bonk died in 2014, and his widow declined to comment for this story. In 1961, Jenapharm, an East German state-owned pharmaceutical company, patented Oral Turinabol, an androgenic-anabolic steroid. It came in the form of a blue pill. Anabolic steroids replicate testosterone, a male hormone. They encouraged more rapid muscle growth and, it turned out, decreased recovery time between training sessions for athletes.
Soon enough, athletes in strength-dependent sports like weightlifting were turning to anabolic steroids for a boost, and not just in the GDR. But the East German government took things a step farther than most nations when it started pilot programs for doping its male athletes in 1966 and, in 1968, began testing the male hormones on women. The female test subject, shot putter Margitta Gummel, won gold in the Olympics that year.
The GDR won 25 medals altogether in the 1968 Olympics. Four years later, at the 1972 Games, East German athletes were awarded 66 medals, including the bronze a 22-year-old Bonk won in the total event. The Soviet Union won 99; the United States took 94; and West Germany, a nation with about three and a half times the GDR's population, won just 40.
For East Germany, racking up a high medal count was a political victory as much as an athletic one. In the warped logic of the Cold War, Olympic medals weren't just about the beauty and genius that sometimes emerges in the careful practice of a difficult physical task. They were evidence of the virtues of a country's political system, and the Olympics became central in the Cold War struggle for hearts and minds.
In East Germany, Olympic medals masked the country's deficiencies, casting the country not as a police state with a shaky economy and a scarcity of luxury items but as a nation of wealth and prosperity, as evidenced by its amazing athletes. Victory over West Germany and, with time, the United States meant victory of the GDR's ideals over the West's. Bonk in particular played a key role in East German propaganda. A two-time world record holder, he was marketed at home as the strongest man in the world.
The GDR is not unique in its use of athletics as an analogue for global standing. Western nations cared about winning, too. They still do. But in a political system where a small group of leaders planned and implemented everything from the top of the Socialist Unity Party on down, you can begin to see how a perverse calculus took hold. If Olympic medals are evidence of national success, then the means of obtaining those medals is not important, and neither are the athletes. And if that's the case, then the decision to give all athletes steroids really isn't a decision at all.
Of course the GDR's all-controlling dictatorship would want to standardize athletic performance, which it did under the umbrella of the Ministry of Sports and government medical facilities. Of course when it became clear that anabolic steroids produced heightened athletic performance, they'd want to standardize their dosage to athletes. Of course it had to be a big secret—and the country's all-seeing secret police, the Stasi, excelled at making sure secrets were kept.
By 1974, widespread cheating was already taking place in the GDR. State Plan 14.25 made it government policy.
The order was approved on October 23, 1974, by a branch of the Central Committee, the very top of the Socialist Unity Party's government. Although top secret, State Plan 14.25 became policy for all GDR athletic programs, mandating the use of steroids through a central distributor, and charging the country's doctors and researchers to further develop performance-enhancing drugs. The nation's Kinder-und Jugendsportschule, the schools for young athletes, were used to give steroids to thousands of children, with neither their knowledge or consent nor that of their parents.
State Plan 14.25 was possibly a preemptive measure to evade mandatory drug screenings, which began at the 1976 Games, by controlling when athletes used steroids and how much. The nation's reputation was at stake. If a number of GDR athletes tested positive for steroids, the world would know the GDR was a fraud.
Despite the secrecy that once surrounded the program, we know quite a bit about State Plan 14.25 today. The Stasi may have operated on fear and silence, but they were also fastidious record keepers. Over time, a paper trail developed.
A big break occurred in 1990, just after German reunification. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the GDR crumbled, "everything was shredded," Werner Franke told me. We sat in a conference room in the University of Heidelberg, where the 76-year-old spent a career as a biologist and cancer researcher. In 1990, Franke was president of the European Cell Biology Organization, an intergovernmental organization for European scientists. As East and West became one, Europe's scientists began to vet the scientific research conducted behind the Iron Curtain, and Franke traveled to the East in order to, in his words, "evaluate the research institutes of the former Academy of Science of the GDR."
One trip brought him to the Academy of Military Medicine in a place called Bad Saarow, a spa town between Berlin and Frankfurt Oder. In the academy, Franke found a mountain of documents pertaining to East German doping, including doctoral dissertations on how steroids can increase athletic performance.
"In the army," Franke said with a chuckle, "nothing is destroyed without an order."
Franke brought the documents home, and they became the basis of a 1992 book written by his wife, Brigitte Berendonk, a former West German Olympic discus thrower who defected from East Germany with her parents as a teenager in 1958. Berendonk was one of the first people to accuse East German athletes of doping, in a 1969 article published in Die Zeit. Her book, Doping: Von der Forschung zum Betrug (Doping: From Research to Fraud), is a comprehensive look at the GDR doping apparatus.
Among the dissertations Franke found, for example, was one titled "For the effective use of anabolic steroids to improve athletic performance in the athletic jumping events." The study looked at 191 male and 174 female athletes over a seven-year period. For his work, the author, Hartmut Riedel, received his doctorate. Riedel went on to become the chief doctor of the GDR's Athletics Federation. His study was just one of many endorsed or performed by the government, aimed at understanding the effects steroids had on the human body and with the goal of developing new "therapies."
One of the GDR's most enthusiastic researchers was Hans-Henning Lathan, the national weightlifting team's doctor. Lathan's doping program went beyond those of his colleagues. He gave his athletes higher doses of Oral-Turinabol than the state recommended. Where other trainers and doctors simply gave their athletes the pills, he gave them other drugs, too, sometimes by injection, and he took surprise blood samples. He apparently believed a controlled and ever-increasing dose of steroids would produce, over time, a greater effect, which explains the extreme amounts of steroids ingested by his weightlifters. Weightlifters like Gerd Bonk.
According to records kept by Lathan and later obtained by Franke and Berendonk, Bonk consumed 12,775 milligrams of steroids in a 12-month period over 1978 and 1979, of which 11,550 were Oral Turinabol. That 12,775 milligrams is the highest quantity of anabolic steroids a human is documented to have ingested in a single year.
"West German calf breeders would use a similar dose to fatten an entire stable," quipped Der Spiegel in a 1991 article that cited some of Berendonk's preliminary research. It ran with a photo of Bonk as he squatted, bar in hand.
Bonk took more steroids than anyone, but not by much. Berendonk's research showed a weightlifter named Peter Käks ate 11,225 milligrams of Oral-Turinabol in 1978-79. Another prominent name on her list was Frank Mantek, who went on to coach the German men's weightlifting team from 1990 to 2012. During the GDR era, Mantek and Bonk were members of the same weightlifting club. Mantek's highest listed yearly dose of Oral-Turinabol was 7,600 milligrams, which he received in 1978-79. (Mantek did not respond to requests for comment.)
By way of comparison, East Germany's Uwe Hohn, who in 1984 became the only person to ever throw a javelin more than 100 meters (a distinction that still stands today), took an annual dosage that appears to have topped out at 1,135 milligrams that year. Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter, took roughly 1,500 milligrams of the anabolic steroid stanozololin in 1988, the same year he won Olympic gold in the 100 meters—a medal the International Association of Athletics Federations later rescinded after a positive drug test.*
In 1976, the secretive East German government did something it'd never done before: it opened its borders to a select group of Western journalists, one of whom was Sports Illustrated's Jerry Kirshenbaum. The resulting story, aptly titled "Assembly Line for Champions," ran just prior to the Montreal Games. Kirshenbaum's peek behind the Iron Curtain was heavily stage-managed, but his account is sprinkled with interesting tidbits about the GDR's pursuit of sporting excellence.
He noted that "more than 300,000 East Germans, or nearly 5% of the labor force, work at least part time as coaches or sports officials." When Kirshenbaum stopped for a day at the Olympic swim trials, he saw three world records, "including a 1:11.93 clocking in the 100-meter breaststroke by Carola Nitschke, a hitherto unknown Berliner just two months past her 14th birthday."
Kirshenbaum speculated that, in Montreal, "the G.D.R. could win 30 to 35 gold medals, conceivably enough to pass the U.S., if not the Soviet Union." The following month, the GDR won 90 medals, 40 of which were gold; the U.S. took home just 34 gold medals while the Soviets won 49.
By 1976, the world already suspected steroid use in the GDR, especially among female athletes. The male hormones in Oral-Turinabol had a particularly profound effect on women. Short-term, it gave them larger muscles, but it also deepened their voices, broadened their shoulders, and made them especially hairy. Kirshenbaum and his colleagues, to their credit, despite being under the watchful eye of GDR handlers, managed to ask a few questions about steroids. Predictably, GDR officials told the journalist they "didn't experiment" with steroids and that "they are not healthy for athletes."
Team doctors often referred to Oral-Turinabol as a "vitamin," but common sense and experience says that, even if younger competitors had no idea about doping, many of the older athletes knew they were at least being given something that enhanced their performance. How much Bonk knew about his "therapy," however, is a question to which we may never know the answer.
Some athletes definitely knew exactly what they were getting. Berendonk's book includes one amazing example attributed to Dr. Michael Oettel, the former director of research and development at Jenapharm. Berendonk writes that, according to Oettel, Marita Koch, whose 1985 world record 400-meter time of 47.60 has never been broken and is still recognized today, wrote a letter asking for "special or more powerful steroids" after hearing her teammate received some from a relative who worked at the pharmaceutical company.
Whether the athletes—even those who knew they were cheating—were properly briefed on the potential side effects is another matter.
"In the English-speaking countries' legal systems, [it's called] informed consent," Franke said. "When you know that you're just taking a forbidden drug, doping, that is not informed consent. Informed consent means you know all the possible side effects, et cetera. [But the doctors said,] 'You get this. Don't talk about this.'"
Team doctors assured athletes of their safety, and the athletes trusted them. Some athletes signed contracts forbidding them from talking. And in the GDR system, where 14.25 mandated compliance, athletes could not have continued their careers without ingesting steroids, both because they could not have competed with their doped colleagues and because coaches and functionaries would have purged them from the system for refusing the orders of their trainers and the trainers' higher-ups at the Ministry of Sports. Given the level of secrecy and distrust, and the Big Brother-esque espionage performed on citizens by the Stasi, athletes didn't dare speak out about the program. Those who didn't want to participate simply stopped.
"You have to know that Gerd Bonk was a simple man," Fischer-Solms told me. "Simple not in a negative sense, but he came from a little village, and he came to the big world of sports wondering what was possible, and he was treated and he said he never asked. His doctor in Chemnitz told him he had to take it or else he would be nothing in weightlifting."
In 1976, Bonk was 25 years old and at the peak of his powers. He set all three of his world records—two in the clean and jerk and one in total—between 1975 and '76. His most significant competition wins came in the 1976 and 1979 European Championships. As the 1980 Olympics approached, Bonk prepared again to meet his biggest rival, the Russian super heavyweight Vasily Alekseyev. Alekseyev took gold ahead of Bonk at both the 1972 and '76 Olympics, but in 1980 he had a terrible tournament. The door would have been open for Bonk to finally beat Alekseyev at the Moscow Games—except that Bonk wasn't there. The East German Olympic committee didn't nominate him.
After steroid testing became mandatory at the 1976 Games, the East Germans were careful about their athletes' doping schedules, making sure they stopped using in advance of the tests, which were not yet random. But stopping steroid use ahead of time was not an exact science, and in 1977 East German shot putter Ilona Slupianek tested positive for steroids. The GDR's Sports Medicine Department responded by creating a central doping control laboratory, where it tested its athletes and held back those whose bodies still contained detectable levels of steroids. In a one-year period between 1979-1980, Bonk's Oral-Turinabol consumption dropped from 11,550 milligrams to 8,390, but it was still too much—he popped for steroids prior to the 1980 Games, and the GDR's Ministry of Sport withdrew him from competition.
"The super criminal thing with Gerd Bonk was that already in 1979—at least in 1979, maybe even earlier—he was diagnosed with severe diabetes," Franke said. "So he was ill. But they thought, you know, they could feed him up with anabolic steroids, so that he once again will bring us a medal in the Moscow Olympic Games."
Doctors did not inform Bonk of his condition until 1980. When he didn't make the Olympic squad, he retired.
"After all that—this is the typical German thing in it—he was 'actively forgotten,'" Franke continued. "They didn't speak about him in the GDR, as it was associated with his story that they gave high dosages of anabolic steroids to a sick man, to get him ready for Olympic medals."
Soon, Bonk's kidneys began to fail—a common consequence of anabolic steroid abuse. By 1984, the former champion was in a wheelchair.
The Berlin Wall may have come down quickly, but the legacy of State Plan 14.25 played out slowly, drop by drop. With each newly uncovered Stasi file, more information came to light, sometimes with devastating consequence.
In 1997, Marie Katrin Kanitz, then 27, received a letter in her Berlin mailbox from the German state of Thuringia's Office of Criminal Investigation. The letter informed Kanitz that police had recently uncovered documents that showed she had received Oral-Turinabol in 1986. Kanitz was not a powerlifter. She was not a sprinter. In 1986, she was a 16-year-old figure skater.
"I was shocked," she told me recently over a conference table in the dusty offices of the Robert Havemann Society, an organization in Berlin devoted to preserving the memory of the political opposition to the GDR. "My first reaction was, 'No, I don't believe it. I don't believe it.'"
The police brought Kanitz in for an interview. They showed her a photo of a box and a row of blue pills still in their individual packaging. Had she seen these pills before? She could not recall. She had taken pills, there was no doubt about that, but never right out of the pack. "As figure skaters, we got vitamin tablets beginning at a young age," she told me in German, her voice beginning to quiver. "Yellow, blue, white, red—every color."
For several weeks, Kanitz's mind raced. Her career had ended nine years prior, but she couldn't stop thinking of her success. Had she deserved it? Or was it the result of being doped? Then, of course, she began wondering about her health. She had battled health problems as an adult. Were her illnesses the result of her being doped?
Kanitz didn't expand on her health issues to VICE Sports, but, much like the short-term effects of Oral-Turinabol, the drug's long-term effects are particularly pronounced among women. In July 2016, Germany's Doping Opfer Hilfe Verein (Doping Victim Help Society), which was formed in 1999 to lobby for and provide assistance to the GDR's doping victims, conducted a survey of 140 of its female members. Nine percent of those surveyed had breast cancer, 55 percent had suffered from gynecological illnesses, and 14 percent had experienced miscarriages.
Eventually the police called again. They told Kanitz there was to be a trial. Would she like to press charges against her former coach? Kanitz said yes.
The trial, which became known as the Berliner Dopingprozess, lasted two years and was an uncomfortable moment of reckoning for a number of once proud East Germans, one that stretched all the way back to World War II.
"In Nazi Germany, we did what we were told to do," one former sports doctor, Dorit Rossler, told the court, as quoted by the New York Times. "The GDR doping machine was no different. We were just carrying out our medical orders, never questioning the system that was good to us, just doing our job. Have we not learned anything?''
The Dopingprozess resulted in just two convictions: GDR chief doctor Manfred Hoeppner and Minister of Sport Manfred Ewald. Both received suspended sentences. Kanitz's trainer, along with the majority of the GDR's sports functionaries, was acquitted on grounds that even she didn't know what the pills she gave the children contained. In 1999, Dr. Lathan was allowed to pay a fine of 20,000 Deutschmarks (about US $9,615) in lieu of standing trial. Today, he is a general practitioner with an office in south Leipzig.
Gerd Bonk was not a plaintiff in the Berliner Dopingprozess. He was, however, an early member of the Doping Opfer Hilfe Verein. Kanitz began working at the Verein in 2013 and was assigned Bonk's case file. The two spent hours on the phone together, brainstorming ways to come up with funds for Bonk, discussing his physical condition.
Once Bonk was wheelchair bound, it was difficult for him to hold a job. For years, he lived with open sores on his feet—a condition caused by his severe diabetes. His back was ruined. While unable to work, Bonk immersed himself in hobbies. He became an avid record collector, with a particular passion for the Beatles, but money was always an issue.
Beginning in 1999, Bonk received a state pension for his disability. In 2002, along with the other 149 doping victims then registered to the Verein, Bonk received a payment of €10,500 from the German government—a reparation for the misdeeds of the GDR. In 2006, the German Olympic Federation and Jenapharm—which still operates, and whcih today has revenues of more than €100 million a year—made a one-time payment of €9,250 to each of a select 167 victims. Earlier this year, the Verein announced another round €10,500 reparations from the German government for each of the Verein's now 1,000 registered victims.
Bonk did not live to receive that second round of reparations. On September 29, 2014, he succumbed to his diabetes and slipped into a coma. He died on October 20, 2014, at the age of 63. The Verein covered his burial costs with a €2,000 donation. Not one person associated with German athletics attended his funeral.
"They count the two medals of Gerd Bonk," Fischer-Solms said, referring to the German Olympic Committee. "But nobody cares about Gerd Bonk."
He was twice the world's strongest man, a national hero and the symbol of his country's false strength, but Gerd Bonk died, in his own words, "burned by the GDR, forgotten by the united Germany."
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*Correction: This piece has been updated to clarify that the GDR athletes and Johnson took different steroids.