When Carl Lewis charged last year in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. that world-class athletes have died from the use of performance-enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids, skeptics told him to name one.
He could have named Birgit Dressel.
Dressel, a West German heptathlete, finished fourth in the European Championships and was ranked No. 6 in the world in 1986. On April 10, 1987, she died after three days of agonizing pain in a Mainz, West Germany, hospital. She was 26.
According to \o7 Der Spiegel, \f7 a West German weekly news magazine, an investigation by Mainz police and the state attorney revealed that Dressel took nine pills a day, including medications that are usually prescribed to treat aging diseases, such as arteriosclerosis, swelling of the legs, allergies, osteoporosis, inflammation of the intestines, arterial cramps and swelling.
She received the pills from her general practitioner, a doctor recognized as a guru among the 2,400 athletes that he and his colleagues see each year. In addition, she used Stromba, an anabolic steroid prescribed by another doctor.
Over the course of her career, she also had been injected with at least 40 different substances. She received 400 injections from her general practitioner.
The official cause of death was recorded as an acute allergic reaction, the result of overloading the immune system with hundreds of drugs.
The doctor was accused of negligent manslaughter, but the Mainz public prosecutor withdrew the charge because it was not possible to determine exactly which drugs killed Dressel.
The last time the doctor treated Dressel, less than two months before her death, he described her as "an athlete capable of good performances, strong and of the greatest fitness."
Actually, she was anything but fit.
As an indication of the stress that high-performance athletes put on their bodies, medical records revealed that she had been suffering since 1981 from ever-recurrent hip pain, lateral bending of the spinal column, damage to the disks and fusion of the spinal vertebrae, displacement of the pelvis, degeneration of both kneecaps and sunken arches.
The autopsy showed that she also suffered from kidney inflammation, probably caused by drugs.
"It is a frightening document," \o7 Der Spiegel \f7 concluded of the investigators' report. "Birgit Dressel--'healthy to the highest degree'--was in truth a chronically sick young woman pumped full with hundreds of drugs. Sport had made a cripple of her long ago, destroying her joints and ruining her internal organs prematurely.
"In her search for such contradictory things as help and pain alleviation, increased performance and world records, the athlete became more and more dependent on doctors and drugs of all types, including doping drugs."
\o7 Der Spiegel \f7 reported that Dressel's mother tried to persuade her daughter not to take drugs.
"Mom, I need them," Dressel reportedly told her. "Everyone takes them. It's nothing at all. Decathletes take twice as many."