Was This Man Cheated Out Of An Olympic Medal? Don Kardong and the strange case of East German Athletics

As he raced down the tunnel into the bowels of Olympic Stadium, chasing the East German runner leading the race, it did not matter whether the time gap was 3.2 seconds or 3.2 minutes. On that balmy, wet evening of July 31, 1976, in Montreal, Spokane’s Don Kardong would be “stuck in 4th place” in the aftermath of the men’s marathon of the Games of the XXI Olympiad.


Walter Ulbricht, the first head of state for East Germany, formally known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), preached “strength through physical culture and sport.” With severe sanctions and trade embargos imposed on the East Germans by the Free World, the communist country of 19 million people turned inward to produce a critical mass of Olympic gold medalists.

Because the Communist elite deemed sport and fitness as high priorities, Article 34 of their Constitution demanded that all citizens, young or old, participate in some form of physical activity. The constitutional push to achieve statewide superiority in sport reached its zenith in the 1980s when, according to journalist Andrew Newman with the left-leaning newspaper Socialist Unity, the government funneled 2.5 billion dollars into the nation’s sport infrastructure. Physically gifted children and young adults competed in district Spartiakades, or Sports Festivals, which culminated with the National Spartiakade. This heavily funded and tightly controlled program ultimately catapulted the GDR as a world super power in sport. One guinea pig in this program was a child prodigy and an eventual Olympic marathon champion, Waldemar Cierpinski.


In America, it was a different world. As a teen, Don Kardong was tall, gangly and cerebrally inclined. In 1964, his Seattle Prep running coach tricked him into running cross-country as a conditioner for hoop dreams that never materialized. Kardong was the top runner on the team as a sophomore, and by his senior year, in 1966, he placed second place at the state cross-country championships. His sports heroes began to shift from Arnold Palmer to Billy Mills and East African Abebe Bikila. Kardong recalls, “Bikila’s victory in Rome (in the 1960 Olympic Marathon) was amazing, and barefoot at that. I didn’t immediately want to emulate him, but I think he planted a seed.” Kardong went on to become a standout collegiate runner at Stanford University.

Meanwhile in the GDR, the goal of every young card-carrying communist was to enter the privileged Children and Sport Schools. By age 12, Cierpinski was accepted into the Aufbau Nienburg Sports School where his day was split between academics and sport. Domestic production of elite athletes began as early as age five by casting a nationwide net through the Extended Sighting and Selection System—probing every nook of the GDR and annually screening 600,000 children.

At age 18, Waldemar won the steeplechase in the Berlin Spartiakade, and at 19, he was invited to join an elite sports club, which was producing multiple world and Olympic champions at that time. In 1972, Coach Walter Schmidt changed the course of Cierpinski’s destiny. According to an interview with East German Sports Historian Barbara Carol Cole for her doctoral dissertation, Cierpinski says, “Coach Schmidt implemented a scientific approach to training that stopped the vicious cycle of injury for me.” Schmidt enrolled his protégé in highly classified sport science testing at the Kreischa Institute, which was an International Olympic Committee (IOC) accredited doping control laboratory. Ironically, it would play a crucial role in shielding East German athletes from the detection of banned performance-enhancing drugs in international competitions.

East German sport scientists probed every internal organ of the young Cierpinksi. They introduced carbo-loading, lactic acid testing, and the value of altitude training. In 1974, Cierpinski entered a marathon and placed a surprising third. Coach Schmidt immediately re-classified the steeplechaser as a marathoner, complete with 200-mile training weeks. To prevent the damaging effects of intensive marathon training, a highly classified program for chemically enhancing GDR athletes was implemented.


They weren’t exactly friends since he ran for division rival Stanford, but Kardong eventually warmed up to University of Oregon’s running legend Steve Prefontaine. In 1971, Kardong nearly defeated Prefontaine in the finals of the PAC-8 three-mile with multiple surges that brought Pre to the brink of vomiting.

Kardong recalls about the NCAA Championships at Husky stadium that took place later that season, “I was flushed out of contention and failed miserably.” After the defeat, Stanford Coach Marshall Clark advised, “Don, you shouldn’t judge your career on one bad race, no matter how bad.”

“Coach Clark basically saved my career after one of the worst races of my life,” says Kardong. At the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, even after battling mononucleosis that spring, Don placed a respectable sixth place in the finals of both the 10,000 meter race and marathon.

Just as serendipity touched Cierpinski, Kardong’s Stanford teammate, Steve Jones (a Rogers High School running protégé of Coach Tracy Walters) invited Don to the YMCA’s Camp Reed to be one of Walters’ counselors along with Jones, Bob Isitt, and Olympic phenoms Gerry Lindgren and Lee Evans—an all-star group of Spokane runners.

In 1974, as a struggling amateur athlete, Kardong moved in with Coach Walters and his wife Leta at their home in Green Bluff, Walters’ Fruit Ranch. During this time, Kardong taught at Loma Vista Elementary school and honed his slow-twitch muscle fiber skills with the help of Walters, a great motivator and strategist. Walters recalls that Kardong had performed an analysis of great marathoners in the world—those who excelled and those who fell apart. What Kardong discovered was that if he were to hold back early in the race, to conserve energy, he might have an opportunity to catch and surpass the leaders during the final miles.

Kardong’s defeat at the 1972 trials was a blessing in disguise, in that four years of additional distance training toughened and transformed him into a truly world-class athlete. Studies carried out at the time observed that during exhaustive treadmill running, Kardong had a pain threshold that out-distanced that of USA Olympians Prefontaine and Frank Shorter.

Approaching the 1976 Olympic Marathon Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Kardong’s training averaged 110 miles per week, including twice weekly speed workouts and a 20-miler. The 27-year-old Kardong infused gastronomical calories to sustain his energy requirements, including, he says, “Fruit Loops and orange juice for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cookies for lunch, pizza and beer for dinner, and hot fudge sundaes for dessert.”

On race day in Eugene, he put into action the analysis he had conducted on pacing elite marathoners by chasing down the pack—eventually qualifying in third place, behind Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter.


Doping began long before the GDR was recognized as an Olympic super power. Dr. John Ziegler, sports physician for the U.S. weightlifting team, observed in 1953 that Russian weightlifters seemed pumped up and aggressive. The following year, a Russian physiologist admitted that Soviet weightlifters were injecting testosterone.

Ziegler then collaborated with CIBA Pharmaceuticals to develop the synthetic anabolic steroid Dianabol, also known as Methandrostenolone. CIBA supplied Ziegler with classified Nazi documents verifying that in WWII the German military had injected testosterone into elite SS Troops to induce aggression. Dianabol, a prescription drug for trauma patients and those suffering from muscle wasting, was distributed by Ziegler to his cadre of elite weightlifters—effectively closing the competitive gap between the Americans and Russians.

At the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, Dianabol was administered to the entire USA Weightlifting Team. The East Germans, frustrated over the impossibility of competing fairly with either the Americans or Russians, rushed to find a solution of their own.

In 1964, the East Germans were conniving over ways of subverting doping controls at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. Dr. Max Schuster and Stasi (secret police) Lieutenant Radeke confided in one another on August 18, 1964, at the Office of Research for Physical Culture and Sport in Leipzig, East Germany—later renamed the Research Institute for Physical Culture and Sport. This was one of the first documented meetings concerning the GDR’s frustration over their ineptitude in the realm of international and Olympic sports, and it would eventually spark one of the greatest experiments in human cultural and biological engineering.

A transcript of this meeting is one of the Stasi files provided by the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former GDR and was translated by Dr. Andrew Strenk, an East German historian and former U.S. Olympic swimmer. The transcript states, “The most effective means and preparations are unknown in the GDR; that for elite sports in the coming years some sports will be passed up in international competition if there is no resulting clarity.” In order to develop a blueprint for superiority in Olympic sport, Lt. Radeke, Dr. Schuster and other sports scientists knew they would need “intensive research and development capabilities to develop new substances, as well as [win] over the leading pharmaceutical professionals of the GDR.” It was also noted at this meeting that strychnine (rat poison) in small doses had been effective in endurance athletes.

After the 1964 Tokyo Games, the East Germans approached the company VEB Jenapharm, a pharmaceutical world leader who, in 1961, patented the anabolic steroid Oral-Turinabol—a synthetic version of the male hormone testosterone, created to be used for patients with severe muscle wasting diseases. According to Strenk, classified Stasi documents reveal that Dr. Klaus-Henning Chemnitius—a research scientist and director of the pharmacology division at Jenapharm—devised the idea to apply anabolic steroids to athletes. Dr. Chemnitius and his colleagues enhanced the muscle-building potential and minimized the androgenic properties, such as deepening of the voice, excessive hair growth and aggression.

Many under-age athletes, mostly female swimmers, were placed on a highly toxic doping regimen referred to as “stacking”—the practice of combining two or more anabolic steroids in a four- to six-week training cycle. However, at the dosages applied to the East German athletes—10 to 30 milligrams per day, per individual drug—the outcome would be catastrophic, especially in adult and adolescent females. The devastating health consequences included severe acne, deepening of the voice, body and facial hair, clitoral hypertrophy and heightened libido, infertility and birth defects. In addition, it caused advanced heart disease and liver failure in young adults, and gynecomastia (breast growth) in males.

By 1968, the GDR had successfully applied doping agents to their elite athletes, yet it was not in men but women. Dr. Manfred Höppner, deputy director of the Sports Medical Service, personally prescribed Oral-Turinabol to two female Olympic shot-putters, Marita Lange and Margitta Gummel-Helmbold.

In a secret Stasi document, uncovered by West German doping detective Dr. Werner Franke, it was disclosed that Lange and Gummel-Helmbold were placed on a regimen of Oral-Turinabol six weeks before the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympic Games. Gummel-Helmbold received a total of 770 milligrams and won the Olympic gold medal with a world record launch of 19.61 meters, surpassing her prior best by 1.99 meters. Lange won the silver. Shortly afterwards, in a nationwide directive fully endorsed and funded by the communist party, Dr. Höppner implemented mandatory doping of thousands of East German athletes.

In the early 1970s, elite American swimmers and their coaches suspected that East German women were taking more than vitamins, when the GDR women’s squad won 10 of 14 gold medals at the 1973 World Swimming Championships in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Eventually, in 1974, the IOC banned anabolic steroids in Olympic competition. Two days later, the GDR Communist Party approved a highly classified program of outwitting the IOC. In the 1980s, when the IOC doping controls were more sophisticated, GDR turned to Chorionic Gonadotropin and human growth hormone to circumvent anti-doping controls. Some of the drugs minimized the muscle-building and masculinization aspects of steroidal use and augmented downright aggression; these drugs were designed specifically for female gymnasts.

In 1981, the communists were blindsided when West German biochemist Dr. Manfred Donike developed a test to detect high doses of natural and synthetic testosterone in urine. The East Germans parlayed in 1982 when the Leipzig Research Institute for Physical Culture and Sport synthesized epi-testosterone. The IOC Doping Control Laboratory implemented ingenious protocols to cover their tracks, starting 14 days from international competitions, by switching from Oral-Turinabol to short-acting testosterone that was undetectable three days after injection. This bridging protocol was advanced even further with the discovery of a designer steroid version of epi-testosterone.

Clearing GDR athletes for international competition involved sending coded urine samples to the IOC doping control lab in Kreischa to see if the athletes would pass or fail the drug tests. If positive, urine would be tested and re-tested until the athletes’ departure control values were within normal limits. In the entire life of the GDR sports system, only one athlete—shot-putter Ilona Slupianek, in Finland in 1977—was disqualified for doping in international competition. But three years later, at the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games, Slupianek won gold.

Following Slupianek’s positive drug test, 17-year-old GDR sprinter and hurdler Renate Neufeld defected westward after she refused to comply with drug abuse. “I started to grow a moustache and my periods stopped,” she was quoted as saying in a Der Spiegel magazine article, published March 19, 1979. “One morning in October 1977, the secret police took me at 7:00 am and questioned me about my refusal to take pills prescribed by the coach.”
In 1978, prior to the FINA World Swimming Championships in West Berlin, 12 of East Germany’s top female swimmers failed the internal doping control screen in Kreischa. As a result, the entire East German squad was taken off steroids, and the consequences were disastrous—out of 14 gold medals, only one went to an East German while American swimmers won nine.

Sadly, the brutality of the Stasi extended its long arm to everyday citizens, which in the end would alienate nearly the entire population from the East German Communist Party. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, remnants of the Stasi old guard remained intact to prevent the release of the master doping plan—formally known as “State Theme Plan 14.25”—long after the two Germanys had reunited.


At 5:30 pm on July 31, 1976, the blast of the starting pistol reverberated inside Olympic stadium, sending 67 marathoners on their arduous journey through the streets of Montreal. Wind and a steady drizzle pelted the runners as they exited the Coliseum tunnel. Soon the pack began to splinter, and at the 15-kilometer mark, Lasse Virén—known as “the Flying Finn” and Olympic champion in the 5000 and 10,000 meters—Frank Shorter and Waldemar Cierpinski broke away.

Sixty-one minutes into the marathon, Shorter surged ahead. It took Cierpinski four minutes to regain contact with him. Cierpinski recalls in his autobiography, Meilenweit bis Marathon, published in 1989, “I had difficulties in following the ‘train from hell’; I started to feel ill when Shorter carried out his first attack at 20k. It was a thankless struggle. How many times I wanted to give up.”

Meanwhile, back in the pack and playing the tortoise, Kardong began to execute the plan he flawlessly carried out in the Olympic Trials. Sipping defizzed Coca-Cola for the sugar and caffeine boost, Kardong was strong. A come-from-behind strategy, along with a steady pace behind the lead pack, allowed Kardong to pick off the stragglers from the Cierpinski-Shorter “train from hell.” Kardong says, “Tracy Walters and his son, Kelly, were out on the marathon course cheering me on. Knowing that gave me great confidence and a shot of adrenalin when I needed it.”

Up front, approaching mile 20, it was still just the two leaders, but then Cierpinski surged ahead on a slight incline. Nearing mile 24, he had a 100-meter lead on Shorter, but then Shorter closed the gap to within 50 meters. Cierpinski states, in his book’s recollection of the showdown with Shorter, “How many times I wanted to let him go, I wanted to give up. I made an effort to hang once, five times, six times. For [Shorter], I came out of nowhere. It was a significant psychological advantage.”

While the battle for gold continued, Kardong applied his strategy with precision. At mile 22, he passed Canada’s Jerome Drayton, Finland’s Lasse Virén, and Belgium’s Karel Lismont. Kardong says, “That put me in third, which I held until mile 25, when Lismont caught me. We ran side by side for almost another mile, but as we headed downhill into the Stadium he surged, and I couldn’t stay with him. My legs were cramping and the downhill through the tunnel made the problem worse.”

Waiting in the stadium were former Gonzaga Prep distance runner Terry Kelly and Kardong’s fellow Seattle Prep alumnus Mike McCloskey. They stood in unison when Kardong entered the Coliseum. “We were right above the tunnel…first came Karel Lismont, then Don Kardong trailing by 20 or 30 yards,” says Kelly. “With two and a half laps to go (600 meters), Kardong closed the gap on Lismont to within 10 yards. McCloskey cheered Kardong on as he launched himself out of the tunnel and into the throng of spectators, chewing up precious ground in the timeless gap between fourth and bronze.”

According to McCloskey, “It was a sprint in slow motion. Kardong accelerated and minimized the gap, and Lismont parlayed with a counterattack to keep Kardong out of striking range.”

At the finish line, Cierpinski won Olympic gold, Shorter won the silver, and Lismont took the bronze with Kardong only 3.2 seconds behind him. Although Kardong didn’t win a medal, he ran 2.5 minutes faster than his Olympic Trials time. “Don raised himself to a new top level in Montreal,” says Bill Rodgers, in an email interview. Rodgers was Kardong’s Olympic teammate and a four-time winner of the Boston and NYC Marathon.


On November 9, 1989, after weeks of mass demonstrations, the Communist Party, in a vote of no confidence by its citizens, opened the gates to the Berlin Wall. A year later, the two Germanys reunited. In its short-lived life span, East Germany amassed 345 Olympic gold medals, but at a huge price: bankruptcy of the state and thousands of chemically-enhanced athletes, which resulted in a tragic legacy of premature deaths, mandatory abortions, and birth defects in children—according to East German doping detectives, Dr. Werner W. Franke and Brigitte Berendonk. Dr. Franke is a cell and molecular biologist with the German Cancer Research Center,

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, suspicions of government sponsored doping began to grow. Sport Physician Manfred Höppner, now cashedstrapped and unemployed, sold classified doping documents to the German magazine Der Spiegel, and other GDR sport professionals followed suit.
In 1994, a unified Germany launched federal investigations, which focused on charges of government-enforced doping in underage female swimmers with the intent of causing bodily harm. This corresponded with a victims’ class-action civil suit against the pharmaceutical company Jenapharm.

Dr. Franke and Berendonk uncovered thousands of classified documents on the State Theme Plan 14.25 to dope over 10,000 East German athletes, from 1968 to 1989—including logbooks documenting doping protocols for 200 track and field athletes.

In a furious pace to prosecute the perpetrators before the October 2, 2000, statute of limitations deadline, dozens of former GDR communist leaders and sport personnel were convicted. The old guard would die off, including: Erich Honecker, Communist Chief; Manfred Ewald, head of the GDR Olympic Committee; General Erich Mielke, Stasi Chief; and Dr. Manfred Höppner. However, several swim coaches and sports medicine physicians were prosecuted.

In 1994, federal prosecutors publicly disclosed copies of Stasi archives, which had been secured in the Ministry of State Security Headquarters in Leipzig. The files include the State Theme Plan 14.25 and names of high-ranking Stasi Generals, as well as a document that identified a Stasi collaborator with the code name “Willi,” who was actually Waldemar Cierpinski.

Dr. Franke was astonished with the mountain of evidence in front of him, including a file dated June 24, 1974, that listed Waldemar Cierpinski as athlete #62. “This file is [one] that should choke the IOC with embarrassment. This is a chronicle of phony champions hoisted on the rostrum of world fame by the Communist drug-lords of the fallen state of East Germany,” Franke states in a UK Mail newspaper article by Malcolm Folley, published in 1998.

In January 1998, when Frank Shorter received a copy of Dr. Franke’s Stasi document, “Cierpinski’s Smoking Gun,” Shorter went public with the revelations, and eventually became an anti-doping crusader.

Don Kardong was shocked by the discovery and experienced a shift in thinking about that race—an attitude of resignation to one of indignation. “There is only one thing that would be wrong, and that is to do nothing, which is what the IOC has chosen,” he says.

In fact, that is precisely what IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch did for decades, says Shorter, essentially “treat[ing] the issue as a public relations problem rather than a drug problem”—as quoted in a 2000 Denver, Colorado, Westward article by Eric Dexheimer, “A Clean Break: Former Olympic runner Frank Shorter wants elite athletes to kick their habits.”

When the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) appealed the IOC in October 1998 for redress of a lost Olympic gold medal for the 1976 USA Women’s 4×100 swim medley relay, the IOC’s position was: “The executive board considers that unfortunately there are too many variables involved to attempt to rewrite Olympic history.”

Concerning the Cierpinski affair, Shorter sees it much differently than the IOC. He was quoted in the Dexheimer article as saying, “[T]his was much more of an atrocity to [Kardong] who finished out of the medals.”

In a 1997 interview with Texas Tech University doctoral student Barbara Carol Cole, Cierpinski responded to the doping allegation, stating, “[As] long distance athletes, we had to prove that we had not taken anything before we left the country. That was a precautionary measure and we readily submitted to it because among us there wasn’t anything.”

However, in the research studies uncovered by Dr. Franke, it was found that an annual dose of 600mg of Oral-Turinabol was optimal to prevent muscle wasting and promote recovery in marathoners. It also enabled distance runners to handle increasingly greater training loads.

“Under today’s enforcement efforts by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Frank Shorter would have two gold medals, and Don Kardong [would have] the bronze medal…after Cierpinski had been disqualified,” says Bill Rodgers.

For athletes the world over, including Americans, eluding the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) detectives is becoming far too problematic. WADA and the USOC have instituted unannounced drug testing 24/7 wherever an athlete may be in the world. Additionally, the instrumentation and drug testing protocols are evolving as fast as new designer drugs enter the black market. The U.S. Department of Justice has also weighed in on the criminality of doping, hence the conviction and imprisonment of former Olympic track sprinter Marion Jones, who returned her Olympic medals as a result.

GDR’s elite sport system was “brutally systematic,” according to Dr. Klaus Bartonietz, an East German sport scientist who was quoted in Cole’s dissertation, “The East German Sports System: Image and Reality,” published in 2000. The system, indeed, got out of hand—it bankrupted the soul of a nation, and shamed and embittered its Olympic heroes.

East German Sports Historian Dr. Andrew Strenk characterizes it as an inhumane metamorphosis, not only for the athletes who abused doping agents but also for those who administered the drugs. “It was a perverted form of capitalism whereby athletes, coaches, sports physicians and sport scientists were rewarded with cash, cars, housing and international travel,” he says.

In fact, the master plan was so successful and prevalent that Dr. Manfred Höppner stated, in a 1977 letter to the Stasi, “At present anabolic steroids are applied in all sporting events, with the exception of sailing and women’s gymnastics.”


Although Cierpinski has not been officially disqualified from the 1976 Olympic Marathon, and Kardong has yet to receive a bronze medal, it is well known that Kardong competed with impeccable integrity and without the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Kardong’s close friends cite his humbleness and kindness as some of his greatest traits.

As a founding member and past president of the Association of Road Racing Athletes (ARRA), Kardong advocated prize money for elite distance runners. His pioneering efforts afforded athletes the financial means to continue to train beyond their college careers and fostered professionalism in the Olympic Games. Kardong’s advocacy also enabled the 1992 USA Men’s Olympic Basketball Team to win gold in Barcelona.

But in the Inland Northwest, Kardong is probably most well known for having founded, in 1977, the annual Lilac Bloomsday Run, which takes place the first Sunday in May. As one of the largest timed road races in the world, it is a well-organized and popular community event for thousands of runners and walkers of all ages. Some of the fastest road runners in the world toe the line, competing for nearly $76,000 in prize money.

Spokane’s history will always have these facts straight.

Don Winant has a master’s degree in exercise physiology from Ball State University’s Human Performance Laboratory, as well as postgraduate training in aerospace physiology at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. He was a captain stationed at the Air Force Flight Test Center in the Mojave Desert and with the Naval Special Warfare Command (U.S. Navy Seals) in San Diego. For the past two years, he has been researching historical aspects of doping in the former German Democratic Republic with Dr. Andrew Strenk, an East German historian and former U.S. Olympian. Winant works as a sport physiologist for Dr. PZ Pearce, M.D. at Champions Sports Medicine in Spokane, WA.

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