German sprinter Marita Koch (born 1957) was, in the words of track coach Miroslav Kvac, "the most remarkable woman sprinter of our time," (as quoted on the website of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, or IAAF). The degree to which she dominated her competition in short distance races during her peak years in the late 1970s and early 1980s has rarely been matched, in track and field or in any other sport. Some have called her the greatest female athlete of all time.
Before her retirement in 1987, due to injuries, Koch broke world records 31 times. At one point, she had notched the six fastest times ever run by a woman in the 400 meters, as well as eight of the ten fastest times in the 200 meters. One of her individual records, her blistering pace of 47.60 seconds in the 400-meter race at the 1985 World Cup in Canberra, Australia, still stands and is the second-oldest record in any sport in Olympic competition. No runner has even approached that record. Koch also held records at distances down to 50 meters. She lost 400-meter races only twice during her peak years. Only one set of jewels was missing from her racing crown, but it was politics, not competition on the track, that kept them from her. At the peak of her career, she was unable to compete in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California, due to a boycott of the games on the part of the Soviet Union and its Communist satellites. After Communism fell, in 1989, investigations into steroid use in the national athletic programs of the former East Germany implicated Koch, but she maintained her innocence.
Competed Against Boys
Koch was born in the East German city of Wismar on February 18, 1957. Her athletic talent was apparent from the beginning; while still a very small child, she took on older boys in races and won. Koch lived in Wismar, East Germany, until passing her high school graduation exams, and then moved on to the University of Rostock, where she planned to study medicine. But a naval engineer and parttime athletic trainer named Wolfgang Meier had other plans for Koch. He had noticed her talent even when she was a student in Wismar, and he followed her to Rostock with the sole intention of directing her training program.
It did not take him long to get results. Koch's best times at 400 meters dropped from 60.3 seconds when she was 15 to 51.60 seconds at 18 and to 50.19 seconds the following year. Her name first began to show up in championship rolls at the European Junior Championships in Athens, Greece, in 1975, where she won a gold medal as part of a relay team and a silver medal at 400 meters. A muscle tear kept Koch on the sidelines at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and in the 1977 World Cup she was a silver medalist behind Irena Szewinska of Poland. That was the last time Koch would lose at 400 meters until 1981.
The year 1978 marked the beginning of Koch's run at the top of world track-and-field rankings. She set her first world record in Poland on May 22, 1978, running 200 meters in 20.06 seconds, and in July of that year, in Leipzig, East Germany, she shaved a full tenth of a second off the 400-meter world record with a time of 49.19 seconds. Koch had competition at the 50-meter, 100-meter, and 200-meter distances from East German teammate Marlies Gohr and from Evelyn Ashford of the United States, who emerged as a sentimental favorite to edge out Koch at 200 meters in the 1979 World Cup. Koch regarded 400 meters as her specialty, however; as powerful as she was in the shorter races, she took them on, she once said, partly in order to check her progress in what would be different stages of a 400-meter race. Her explosive start was one of her strengths, developed partly through intensive work in shorter sprints. In 1979 she lowered her 400-meter world record twice in one week, to 48.89 and then 48.60 seconds.
The world beyond track and field began to know Koch's name when she won two gold medals (at 400 meters and in the 4x400 meter relay) at the Montreal Olympics in 1980. The races revealed to television audiences a powerful but graceful runner. Mexican sprinter Maritza Laguardia told the Mexico City newspaper El Norte that Koch had "a tremendous physical build—one meter and 78 centimeters tall, more or less, and all muscle." Viewers did not get to know Koch on a personal level, however; press and public access to Koch and other East German athletes was severely curtailed by East German officials fearful of athlete defections. Compounding the situation was Koch's natural shyness; even after German reunification, she gave few interviews.
Earned Triple Golds at One Event
Koch suffered one of her rare losses in the 400 meters against arch-rival Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechslovakia in 1981, but she soon resumed her winning ways. She lowered her 400-meter world record once again to 48.15 seconds at the 1982 European Championships, where she also took a relay gold. Koch won three gold medals at the 1983 World Track and Field Championships in Helsinki, Finland, in the 200-meter, 4×100-meter relay, and 4×400 relay events. That made her the most successful athlete in the meet's inaugural year. She lost the 400-meter world record to an inspired Kratochvilova, who broke the 48-second barrier. But Koch seemed a star in the making in advance of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California. Even American coach Pat Connolly conceded to Bill Shirley of the Los Angeles Times, "Marita is the best woman runner we've ever had," and marveled that "there is a fluidity about Marita that is pleasing to watch."
But Koch's star status was not to be—the United States had boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan the previous year, and the Soviet Union retaliated by leading most Communist countries in a boycott of the Los Angeles games. Koch and the other members of the East German Olympic team, groomed since childhood, were disappointed with the boycott and had no choice but to accept the situation. Koch, in her late twenties, was at the peak of her career.
The following year, Koch seemed determined to make up for lost opportunities. At the World Cup games in Canberra, she took gold medals at 200 meters and in the 4×400-meter relay, but it was her record-setting time of 47.60 seconds at 400 meters that made headlines around the world. Koch told the Times of London, "I have never felt more relaxed at the 300-meter mark that I did today. I couldn't see the clock at the end, but I could tell from the crowd noises that I must be running at world-record pace." After shaving nearly four-tenths of a second off Kratochvilova's existing record—a striking margin in the world of sprints, where margins of a few hundredths of a second are the rule—Koch, according to the Times, "reemphasized her claim to be considered the finest woman athlete of the past decade, if not in the history of the sport."
That single sprint seemed to drain Koch's energy. She told the Times, "All I can think about now is going home and having a holiday." Koch entered her name into the lists of preliminary competitors for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. Suffering from Achilles tendon problems, however, she found her competitive drive waning. She officially retired in 1987. "It was getting harder and harder to motivate myself anyway," she told Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune. "I would go to the track and all these 14- and 15- and 16-year-olds would be out there and I would think, 'What am I doing here?'" Her last event was the 1986 Grand Prix in Rome, where she won the 400-meter race.
Opened Sporting Goods Store
Koch was engaged to her coach Wolfgang Meier at the time, and the two soon married. They had a daughter, Ulrike, in 1989. Initially, Koch planned to resume her studies in pediatric medicine, but the dissolution of East German Communism as the border with the West was opened on November 9, 1989, turned Koch's life upside down. "It was a different business life and personal life," she told Hersh. "No one was telling you what to do. There used to be one insurance company; now there were hundreds. It was very difficult not knowing where to go or what to do." The twin demands of medical school and motherhood also proved burdensome.
Koch and Meier decided to open a sporting goods store in Rostock. The business was successful and later expanded to a second store. She told the German television network ZDF that the business was not making them rich, but that it did provide a good living. Consistent with her reserved nature, Koch hung nothing on the walls of the shop that gave even a hint of her famous athletic career. "This way," she told ZDF, "people don't come in to marvel at the Olympic or World Championship gold medals. They're planning to buy something."
Only one thing threatened to disturb Koch's low profile: the growing controversy over the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports generally and in Olympic competition specifically. Rumors of drug treatment had dogged the phenomenally successful East German state athletic programs through the 1980s, and in 1992 a British Broadcasting Corporation television documentary featured a West German scientist who claimed to have cracked the codes contained in East German records and identified Koch as one of the athletes who had been treated with steroids.
The controversy resurfaced in 1995, as French Olympic champion Marie-Jo Perec of France—another Wolfgang Meier protegee—pointed to a slowing of sprinters' race times as new drug controls were implemented in the late 1980s. Perec pointed to Koch's own record as one that was suspect, but Koch, in conversation with Hersh in 2000, retorted, "Now that you are training with my husband, you will learn how I worked" to reach her level of accomplishment. In 2005 newly declassified German secret police files also seemed to raise the possibility that Koch had been given drugs. She continued to deny the charges categorically, telling Simon Turnbull of London's Independent on Sunday that "at the World Championships in Helsinki in 1983 I had to go to dope testing three times, and always I was clean. The same applies to my career overall. I was a mature and responsible athlete." Indeed, Koch looked back fondly on her remarkable athletic career. "It was a wonderful time," she recalled to ZDF. "Sports have given me a lot, even when the victories cost a lot of hard work. I would do it all again exactly the same way."
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