Koch me if you can

| |

There are new doubts over whether Marita Koch’s 400m world record is genuine. These doubts consider the record’s East German communist context and an inability to compete with the record today.

Marita Koch set an unbelievable 400m mark of 47.6 seconds thirty years ago in Canberra, Australia; but it was a run that has been scrutinized and doubted over the years, even though Koch never actually failed a drugs test.

It’s all too easy to point fingers and suggest that athletes are doping for various reasons – their size, a rapid improvement, achieving the previously-thought unattainable. In this instance many have noted that Koch took half a second off of her already incredible personal best. And that she went through the 200m mark in record time, before posting 47.6 from lane two, with a seemingly inefficient running technique.


Since this infamous race, only Marie-Jose Perec (in 1996) has come within a second of Koch’s time and few athletes have been able to match her versatility over the shorter sprints, with Koch’s personal bests standing at 10.83 and 21.71 (the latter a world record in 1979). These results alone may start to flag suspicion.

What is most important, however, is to look at the context of this record. There has been a lot of speculation particularly because of the East German institutionalized doping regime known as State Plan 14.25. During this period, drug regimens were given both with and without the knowledge of the athlete and resulted in world sporting victories and subsequently huge national pride. It painted a picture of a successful and prosperous East Germany, using sport as propaganda to achieve international prominence from its Marxist-Leninist beginnings to its communist collapse in the late 1980s.

It was finally revealed in 1993 that the Stasi (secret GDR state police) had supervised decades of systematic doping. David Epstein noted in his book The Sports Gene the sad tale of champion shot-putter Heidi Kreiger, who was unknowingly given anabolic steroids from a young age and is now a goatee-bearded, balding shop-owner known as Andreas Kreiger. Kreiger’s sex reassignment surgery is evidence of the evils of the East German regime and suggests it is the athletes who are left to deal with the consequences of the Stasi’s actions.

Ed Harry of the BBC’s World Service suggested Koch’s performance was not legitimate, asking the important question ‘If Koch competed in an era when we know East Germany was systematically doping its athletes… Why should we believe she was clean?’

Koch told Harry ‘I have a clear conscience. I can only repeat myself… I have never tested positive, I never did anything which I should not have done at that time.’ On the world record run in particular she said ‘I didn’t achieve the world record out of nowhere. I had previously improved my time on five occasions, in slow steps, around the 48-second mark, and at some point it became a world record.’ Her final point was interesting though, commenting on the ‘exceptional’ trend in world records. Koch stated ‘All world records are certainly in some way an exception, so now the next person has to come, or has to be born, who is ready to break the record. At some point, that time will come.’

One could argue that in sport, as in life, we are innocent until proven guilty but the world of doping is complex and certain cases have been left somewhat ambiguous. There seems to be a moral stance here for the IAAF; to review the context of the case and compare Koch’s time to results from recent 400m championships. One can still ask the question ‘Is it more likely that Koch was one of few who were not doping, yet still produced such a performance? Or is it more likely that she was caught up in an illegal doping system like the rest?’ If it is to be the latter, and female 400m sprinters today are unable to come near to Koch’s time, it may be possible to remove 47.6 seconds as an official world record.