Enduring Shame: Marita Koch and the GDR

Photo: Wolfgang Kluge via Wikipedia

I am haunted by the photo of East German sprinter Marita Koch smiling in the midst of a group of young fans. The photo was taken in 1986 when Koch was 29 years old and just ten months removed from the most astonishing performance of her long, illustrious career, a world record 47.60 for 400m in which she split 22.4 for 200m and 34.1 for 300m. Since she ran that time almost 30 years ago, only one other woman has come within a second of the record. Even more astounding, only four other women have even broken 49 seconds. It’s as if that 47.60 came from another world, and in a sense it did.

In the photo, Koch is smiling as she grasps the hand of a young girl. Although all the children in the photo are wearing rain jackets, Koch wears only her East German national team uniform, and one’s eye moves automatically to her well-muscled arms and shoulders. She looks like she has just won a race and is ready to sign autographs. She looks like a youthful Greek god.

Koch was always fast. She was fast as a 15-year-old when she began training with a Naval Engineer and part-time athletics coach named Wolfgang Meier (who would later become her husband). She was even faster in 1976 as a 19-year-old when she made her international debut, running 22.70 for 200m and 50.19 for 400m. At age 23, she won the 400m at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But she was just getting started. In 1983, at age 26, she won the 200m at the World Championships in Helsinki, and set a world record for the 400m, running 48.16. Had it not been for East Germany’s boycott of the 1984 Games, she would have been odds-on favorite to win there, as well. And then, at an age when long sprinters usually slow down, she ran that preposterous 47.60.

But Koch won those races and ran those times as an East German during an era when East Germany was engaged in systematic state-sponsored doping. No one doubts this and, although Koch has never admitted publicly that she was given PEDS, no one doubts that she was, to put it delicately, part of that world — that world of East German athletics that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s and produced champions in swimming, track and field, and other sports. Did athletes from other countries dope? Of course, but nowhere was there such a comprehensive, institutional doping program as in East Germany, and much of that doping focused on young women.

Consider: nine East German women ran 50.15 or faster for 400m before unification in 1989. In the last 25 years, only two German women (without regard to East or West) have done so, the last one in 1999.

There have been efforts over the years to address the cheating that was rampant then. When records from the East German sports machine emerged, including documents that seemed to implicate Koch, some tried to have the IOC strip athletes of their gold, silver, or bronze medals if it were shown that they had doped. That never came to pass. Many people opposed such a move because of the difficulty of knowing for sure who had doped and who hadn’t. There was no need to revisit that time, they said, and it would be better to leave the past behind.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, the IAAF came out with its 2014 inductees into its Hall of Fame, and there was Koch (as well as Heike Dreschler) on the list. What are we to make of this? Is it really possible to ignore East German doping when deciding HOF credentials? On the other hand, unless you come right out and say that these athletes were dirty, how could you possibly overlook them?

There are at least two tragedies here: the first is that athletes of middling talent rise, through the use of PEDs, to a level of performance that makes them competitive with the best in the world, depriving other athletes of places and rewards that should have been theirs. Friend and loyal reader Josh Seeherman called my attention to U.S. runner Evelyn Ashford writing, “[Speaking of the USATF Hall of Fame], I don’t know how Wilma Rudolph gets in before Evelyn Ashford except for politics.  If there is anyone overshadowed by the combined forces of the GDR and FloJo it’s Ashford.”

The other tragedy is when a great talent is enhanced and perverted with PEDs. When that happens, not only is it cheating the other competitors, it’s depriving the world of the opportunity to appreciate the true talent that athlete has to offer.

Let history be history, says the pragmatist. Whatever happened, let’s not dredge up the past. Marita Koch is almost 60 years old. What’s the point anymore?

That, of course, is the final tragedy, that everything becomes a muddle, that the clean and the dirty are all standing on the same stage together to receive their honors, and that because we no longer make a distinction, we don’t really care.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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2 Responses to Enduring Shame: Marita Koch and the GDR

  1. Dw says:

    In 1975, my teacher asked me about an artical that appeared in Track an Field Mews- Is Black Faster- covering white sprinters in Europe as opposed to those in America. He wondered why the Europeans were faster. I told him two reasons amongst several others. First at that time many coaches guided any white sprinter to go up the ladder to the next event-not black; won’t make it- Seccond and I didn’t realize how prophetic it would become; I told him the Europeans are using drugs and when the U.S. Sprinters start using you are going to see 100 meter times look like 100 yard times.

    As a former All American sprinter, I am completely disillusioned by all the drug test.

    As a high school track coach I have to constantly explain to my kids that you have to do foundation work before progressing to the speed and speed endurance work. They read some workout that a drugged sprinter did and expect it to work for them. Agai and agin I tell them that the artical they are reading is not based on sound -drug free- research. I stick with the old tried and true Bud Winter Methods. It takes time and hard work, but is more reliable and physically safer for the student athletes.

    Thank you for the artical; excellent.

  2. Alexsandr says:

    I was a Yugoslavian Olympian in the decathlon who doped. In distance all the Kenyan and Ethiopians were and ARE STILL doping. Should be ban them too? Where do we stop?

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