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.