Liam Morgan @ITG

Tennis racket manufacturers Head were all too willing to enthuse and gush about just how courageous Maria Sharapova had been in telling the world that she had failed a drugs test this week.

They couldn’t wait to tell us how “proud” they were of the “brave” Russian, winner of five Grand Slam singles titles, who announced news of her positive test for meldonium, a substance which has quickly become the doping buzzword after being added to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned list on January 1, at a hastily-arranged press conference in Los Angeles.

Head's statement sparked deserved controversy among athletes and the media alike. Their arrogance in presuming Sharapova did not intentionally cheat - a fact which has yet to have been proven - was mystifying. While some of the Russian’s other main sponsors, such as Nike and Porsche, jumped ship, Head saw no reason why to follow them overboard.

They then managed to outdo themselves yesterday when they criticised WADA’s decision to place meldonium, a heart attack drug which could have performance-enhancing effects on athletes, on the banned list. A tennis racket maker had publically picked a fight with an agency which is packed full of doping experts and scientists. Not the wisest move.

It’s a shame Head's representatives were not at the Tackling Doping in Sport Conference in London, as they would have been given a stark reminder of what demonstrates true courage during a presentation given by German National Anti-Doping Agency chief executive Andrea Gotzmann.

She stepped up to the stage and played a fascinating, hard-hitting and moving short film detailing the life of Andreas Krieger, perhaps the most notable athlete to have been involved in the widespread state-supported doping regime in East Germany, known as State Plan 14.25, which lasted the best part of two decades back in the 1970s and 1980s.

Maria Sharapova announced that she had failed a drugs test earlier this week
Maria Sharapova announced that she had failed a drugs test earlier this week ©Getty Images

Andreas Krieger, as many will know, was formerly Heidi Krieger, who won European Championships shot put gold on home soil in Stuttgart in 1986. It took sheer courage to appear in such an honest and revealing film.

Like 9,000 others, he was part of the systemic programme, conducted largely in secret, aimed at elevating East German athletes to the pinnacle of their respective sports.

It worked. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) went from a sporting nobody to a sporting powerhouse, going from winning 25 medals at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968 to claiming 90 at Montreal 1976, 40 of which were gold. That remarkable total saw them finish second on the medal table behind the mighty Soviet Union.

Their incredible rise to the summit of the sporting arena continued as they brought home a haul of 102 Olympic medals - including 37 gold - at Seoul in 1988

Krieger and the rest of the footsoldiers were considered the face of the Communist regime, with their sporting achievements used as a way to prove that the East German political system was unrivalled and unmatched.

Yet many had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. A large majority were blissfully unaware that they were being brutally and mechanically doped on a regular basis by coaches and officials who saw only the need of the collective rather than the individual.

They were not doping cheats; they were victims, coerced into flouting the rules in return for success on the international stage.

Heidi Krieger won the shot put at the 1986 European Championships at Stuttgart but was so full of anabolic steroids it had far-reaching effects on her life ©Getty Images
Heidi Krieger won the shot put at the 1986 European Championships at Stuttgart but was so full of anabolic steroids it had far-reaching effects on her life ©Getty Images

“In my case, when I was nearly 16, my coach gave me some blue pills, in addition to the vitamins I was already taking,” Krieger says during the film, entitled Andreas Krieger - Heidi’s farthest throw.

“I didn’t know what they were called. They weren’t in the original package. I got them from my coach who said they would be a helpful substance.

“As a 17-year-old teenager, I was being pumped full with more male doping substances than the doped adult sprinter Ben Johnson.”

Krieger wasn’t alone. Countless members of the East German sporting fraternity went through the process, where those behind the loathsome system would leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of the next best drug or substance. As Krieger puts it, it was a “systemic plan that monitored every step from the research to the athlete”.

As a result of not being fully aware of what had happened, athletes such as Krieger thought they had reached the pinnacle of their chosen sport through ability, determination and by simply being the best. How wrong they were.

For some, it wasn’t until the early 1990s until they began to realise that they had in fact topped podiums and won medals because of the doping. Krieger, who retired aged just 26 in 1989, admits in the film that his moment of clarity didn’t arrive until 2000, when German courts began to prosecute the perpetrators of the doping scheme.

“It was 2000, the year that the trials took place, that I finally accepted things 100 per cent and came to grips with the fact that my achievements weren’t real,” Krieger, who married East German swimmer Ute Krause in 2002, said.

“I reached them with chemicals but I didn’t manage them on my own.”

From a sport perspective, the programme, no matter how vile or odious it may be, yielded spectacular and unfathomable results. But it was the personal and medical effects it had on many of the athletes that remains disturbing and downright shameful to this day.

While there are those who, thankfully, have emerged from the scandal unscathed, large numbers of others are still living with the effects. Illnesses such as cancer, depression, heart problems and infertility are prominent, with some having even paid for their unknown participation in the scheme with their lives.

For Krieger, the sheer volume of substances that were pumped into his body affected his gender hormones. While he always knew he was different, the amount of toxins and illicit chemicals he was forced to ingest effectively rendered gender reassignment surgery essential, and he began a three-year course of treatment to become a man in 2000.

“My decision to find my gender identity was taken away from me,” he says in the candid interview.

“In some way they played God without including me or asking me. They decided without me and didn’t care what would become of me.”

The doping regime will forever be a black mark in the history of Germany, though the Government cannot be accused of sweeping it under the carpet as they recently announced they would conduct a second wave of compensation to affected athletes following the initial launch of funding to victims in 2002.

There are high hopes that a greater number than the 194 who applied for the first batch of funding will come forward this time around, with the evocative Krieger film a key motivational tool aimed at those who may be too afraid to accept money being rightly offered to them.

The reason for the low turnout in the opening round of compensation was because many have only just begun to notice the effects of their engagement in the doping programme and with around 2,000 still suffering from the consequences of those tumultuous years, the German Government could and should be paying out a substantial amount of cash this year as they have pledged German give those athletes affected a one-off payment of €10,500 (£8,100/$11,600).

Andreas Krieger remains a fervent anti-doping campaigner in Germany
Andreas Krieger remains a fervent anti-doping campaigner in Germany ©Getty Images

Not only that, but the fund has been heralded by Gotzmann as “very important” to help with their main goal - to ensure none of the affected athletes feel alone and that they are accepted and embraced in society despite the physical and emotional scars they might display.

“Some athletes have died because of the doping and others need help and support – many have illnesses such as cancer and they are all still at risk of depression,” she told insidethegames.

“There are many more who aren’t able to talk.”

Perhaps those who have been so quick to offer their condolences to Sharapova should lend some of their support and sympathy to the East German athletes, who are true victims of doping, rather than to those who simply couldn’t be bothered to read their e-mails.

So no, Head, it doesn’t take courage to front up to your failed test and alleged persistent use of a now banned drug at a press conference in a plush Los Angeles hotel.

What takes courage is the likes of Krieger speaking up and educating others about their harrowing past to ensure the experiences they went through are banished completely to the dark ages.