The former East Germany used amateur sportsmen and women as unknowing guinea pigs for trials of experimental drugs aimed at enhancing performance, according to a German documentary which aired Friday.

While a widespread elite sports doping programme came to light after the fall of the communist East German regime in 1990, including many trials and convictions, the dcumentary revealed a little-known aspect of the programme; the use of recreational athletes as guinea pigs for these experimental drugs.

The vast state-sponsored doping programme was been in operation in the former East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s under the direction of the secret police, known as the Stasi.

Researchers cited on the ARD channel documentary, said that such experiments were probably carried out on many hundreds of people over 20 years.

Hans-Albrecht Kuehne, a runner at the time, recounted how he had taken part in a top-secret programme run by the Institute for Body Culture and Sport in Leipzig, which he was told he couldn’t talk about afterwards.

Between 1974 and 1977, back in the Cold War days which pitted the Soviet Union and its satellites against the West, Kuehne regularly submitted to injections of drugs he knew nothing about, and underwent numerous, often painful, biopsies

ARD also unearthed film footage shot in the former East Germany in 1976 documenting such biopsies.

Kuehne and others were exposed to strong doses of anabolic steroids, including Turabinol, designed to enhance athletic performance but which also had serious side-effects, including kidney pain swelling of the testicles and blood loss.

Kuehne is still receiving treatment, more than 40 years on, for a damaged lymphatic system. He also spoke of problems with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Manfred Hoeppner, the architect of East Germany’s sports doping system, admitted following the reunification of Germany that the East German regime had been aware of the risks of doping on elite athletes and had wanted to test the effects first on lesser mortals.

Hoeppner, unlike some of his colleagues, expressed remorse for the doping strategy but was convicted in 2000 and given a suspended sentence.

East Germany, under a Communist regime supported by Moscow from 1949 to 1990, became a global sporting powerhouse, notably coming near the top of the medals table in successive Olympic Games.