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Heptathlete Birgit Dressel : An Athlete Dying Young

2 minute read

In the 1984 Olympics, she came in ninth. In the 1986 European Championships, she came in fourth. In 1987, at the age of 26, West German heptathlete Birgit Dressel was dead, the victim of her body’s reaction to the profusion of drugs she took in order to be a great competitor.

Her story is a singularly horrible one, but the behavior that cost Dressel her life is by no means unique. Dressel died in a Mainz hospital, after three days of agonizing pain, because of a rare massive allergic reaction to the combination of drugs she took — as many as 20 different kinds. She consumed them compulsively, seeking help from at least three different doctors to keep the medicine chest stocked, believing that they would all help her win. She believed as well that the drugs were nothing to worry about. When her mother questioned her about them, Dressel replied, “These are all harmless drugs. All athletes take them. It’s really nothing special.” No single drug she took was blamed for her death, but it is worth noting that one of the drugs she reportedly received was Stromba — a trade name for stanozolol, the steroid that was found in Ben Johnson’s urine test.

The compulsion Dressel felt to dope is widespread and growing. So says Bruce Wilhelm, a weight lifter who competed in the 1976 Olympics and admits that he used steroids during his competitive days. “Sure I did. There’s nobody in the world who hasn’t. The difference today,” says Wilhelm, now a member of the U.S.O.C. subcommittee on substance and drug abuse, “is that the dosages have increased ten- to 100-fold. It’s crazy now.”

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