Werner Franke, Who Exposed East German Doping Program, Dies at 82
Werner Franke, an esteemed molecular biologist who, with his wife, exposed many of the details of East Germany’s state-sponsored, illicit athlete doping program that brought the country a striking surge of Olympic glory in the 1970s and ’80s, died on Nov. 14 in Heidelberg, Germany. He was 82.
His son, Ulrich, said the cause was a cerebral hemorrhage.
The documents that Dr. Franke and his wife, Brigitte Franke-Berendonk, a former Olympic shot putter and discus thrower, found in the 1990s in German archives after the fall of the Berlin Wall, showed the breadth of the government’s plan to use androgenic steroids, most notably little blue pills called Oral-Turinabol, and hormones, to bolster its athletes’ chances of winning medals at international competitions, particularly the Olympics.
“Several thousand athletes were treated with androgens every year, including minors of each sex,” Dr. Franke and Mrs. Franke-Berendonk wrote in 1997 in the journal Clinical Chemistry. “Special emphasis was placed on administering androgens to women and adolescent girls because this practice proved to be particularly effective for sports performance.”
Dr. Franke became a vocal antidoping expert who helped former athletes who sued their doctors and trainers by giving them documents and scientific information about the drugs they had taken. He also provided documents to prosecutors.
“The depth of the doping culture in East Germany encompassed the political and sports world, an intertwining of powerful men,” said John Hoberman, an expert on East German’s doping culture who wrote “Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and Dehumanization of Sport” (1992). “That was the environment that Franke and Berendonk operated in as beacons of integrity.”
Travis T. Tygart, the chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, said in a statement that Dr. Franke was a “fierce advocate for clean sport” and “one of the few who had the courage to speak out and demand better for athletes.”
Although there were suspicions over the years that East Germany’s international success was attributable to more than improved training methods, the Frankes’ research laid out the country’s systematic program — called State Planning Theme 14.25 — which involved doctors, scientists, coaches and the nation’s sports hierarchy and government.
The plan had worked. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, East German athletes won 25 medals, including nine golds. At the 1972 Munich Summer Games, they won 69 medals, 23 of them gold. Four years later, in Montreal, they won 94 medals, 42 of them gold; stunningly, 11 of the 13 women’s swimming events were won by East Germans.
The Frankes described it as “one of the largest pharmacological experiments in history,” with many of the drugs manufactured by state-sponsored companies and an awareness of side effects for women like increased body hair, overmuscled physiques, ovarian infections and infertility. One shot put champion, Heidi Krieger, was so damaged by the changes in her body caused by heavy steroid use that she decided to undergo transition surgery, and became Andreas.
“They weren’t just strengthening women,” Dr. Franke told Sports Illustrated in 2003. “They were virilizing them.”
Werner Wilhelm Franke was born on Jan. 31, 1940, in Paderborn, Germany. His father, Wilhelm, worked for the German railroad; his mother, Rosa (Kröger) Franke, was a homemaker. He studied biology, physics and chemistry at Heidelberg University and earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in 1966 and a Ph.D the next year from the same school.
He began his academic career as an assistant professor of biology at the University of Freiburg in 1967, the same year he met his future wife, who had immigrated from East Germany to West Germany in 1958. At first, Dr. Franke, who had run the 800 and 1,500 meter races for a club as a teenager, was her coach, guiding her to the 1968 and 1972 Summer Olympics, where she finished eighth and 11th in the discus throw. She was the German champion in the shot put in 1973.
They married in 1975. By then, Mrs. Franke-Berendonk had conveyed to her husband her suspicions that East German athletes, some of whom she had competed against, were taking performance-enhancing drugs. But they could not prove it until after Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Dr. Franke learned in 1990 that classified documents outlining the doping drug program were stored in a military facility in Bad Saarow, Germany, near Berlin, and got a court order to review them. From those records, the Frankes wrote “Doping: From Research to Deceit” (1991), which bore only Mrs. Franke-Berendonk’s name because she was better known at the time. The book revealed medical records and dosages that showed that Heidi Krieger received 2,590 milligrams of Oral-Turinabol in 1986.
“That’s about 1,000 milligrams more than Ben Johnson got in 1988,” Dr. Franke told The New York Times in 2004, referring to the Canadian sprinter who was stripped of his gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul after testing positive for a steroid.
Dr. Franke found and copied the files at a fortuitous moment in German history.
He told The Daily Telegraph of London in 2003 that “the change because of the unification was happening so fast — already the West German military ranks had taken over and the East Germans were no longer in power. So this gap, which only existed for a few weeks in history, I was able to exploit.”
In 1994, he gained access to an archive of the Stasi, the East German secret police, which was deeply involved in the doping program. The files revealed, among many other things, the collaboration of doctors with the government. In the file of one particular doctor that included the drug protocols of athletes under his care, the doctor wrote, “For the majority of events, world-class performances cannot be achieved without the use of supporting means” — a euphemism for steroids.
The files, which Dr. Franke showed to The Telegraph, also had a list of how much various athletes could improve by using steroids, including male discus throwers (10 to 12 meters), 400-meter female runners (five to 10 seconds) and female javelin throwers (eight to 15 meters).
For 30 years, Dr. Franke was one of Europe’s loudest public voices against doping.
“He wanted to correct the record on all the things that were wrong with competition and doping,” Steven Ungerleider, the author of “Faust’s God: Inside the East German Doping Machine” (2001) said in a phone interview. “But it was his wife who spurred him on.” He added, “He wanted to help all the athletes, especially the 1976 team, that had been betrayed by East Germany.”
In the 2000s, Dr. Franke sought to correct the record of two top cyclists, Jan Ullrich, a German who won the 1997 Tour de France, and Alberto Contador, a Spaniard.
In the Ullrich case, Dr. Franke received access to Spanish police files from an investigation into a drug scandal that tied Ullrich to a payment of 35,000 euros to a doctor for doping substances.
“I inspected the file on Jan Ullrich compiled in Madrid,” he told a German TV station in 2006, “and all I can say is that it’s been some time since I’ve seen so much bad stuff,”
Ullrich at first denied the accusation and went to a German court to impose a gag order on Dr. Franke, which was eventually overturned. In 2013, Ullrich admitted to doping.
In 2007, Dr. Franke linked Contador to the same scandal; the cyclist was exonerated by the Spanish cycling federation; but he was later banned for two years by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, because of a positive test for the drug clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour de France. He won the race but was stripped of the title.
In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Franke is survived by a daughter, Friederike Franke; one granddaughter, and a sister, Monika Gutheim.
Throughout his antidoping activities, Dr. Franke continued his scientific work. In 1973, he joined the German Cancer Research Center as a biology professor and head of its research division. He held various positions there until mid-2021.
His research into the proteins of the cytoskeleton — the protein scaffolding that provides cells with shape and support — has helped make it possible to identify and classify tumor cells from the molecular characteristics of those proteins.