Track and Field’s Oldest (and Most Suspect) Record Is in Danger
Jarmila Kratochvilova ran 800 meters in 1 minute 53.28 seconds in 1983, a mark that could be erased by a proposal to void all world records set before 2005.
CASLAV, Czech Republic — In 1983, at age 32, when most track athletes are beyond their fastest times, Jarmila Kratochvilova ran 800 meters in 1 minute 53.28 seconds. The result was so blistering and unprecedented that it has become track and field’s longest-standing outdoor world record.
And perhaps its most suspect.
Kratochvilova (KRA-toke-vee-lova) is 66 now, a pensioner and a youth coach here in rural Bohemia, about 65 miles southeast of Prague. She has been retired from competition for three decades. But her career may soon be shaken retroactively as track and field officials attempt to restore credibility to a sport hit by repeated doping scandals.
European Athletics made a striking proposal in May to have the sport’s global governing body void all world records set before 2005. That year, storage of blood and urine samples began for more sophisticated drug screenings.
In announcing the “radical” recommendation, Svein Arne Hansen of Norway, president of the European track association, said, “Performance records that show the limits of human capabilities are one of the great strengths of our sport, but they are meaningless if people don’t really believe them.”
The proposal, which would recognize records set only by athletes who undergo a strict regimen of drug testing, is expected to be taken up in August by track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations.
Sebastian Coe of Britain, the I.A.A.F. president, has called the proposal a “step in the right direction,” saying, “We have a good chance of winning back credibility in this area.”
But the proposal has sparked outrage among the record holders themselves — including Kratochvilova — who feel that they are being judged guilty of doping by association. They do have one important point: There is no proof that every record set before 2005 was aided by doping and no guarantee that every record achieved since then was unassisted by banned substances.
Revoking records would be “complete nonsense,” Kratochvilova said this month through an interpreter while coaching at a meet in nearby Pardubice. “I have never taken banned substances,” she said.
Her case is extremely complicated and illustrates the murkiness that will challenge any good-faith attempt to reconsider who should be worthy of a world record.
This will be especially true of athletes who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and competed during the 1980s, when sport in the Eastern bloc was used as propaganda to promote communism.
Elite athletes there often had little or no choice but to participate in state-sponsored doping programs. To refuse was to risk not being allowed to train for the Olympics or other major international competitions, where victory could mean national glory and perks such as an apartment or a car.
For decades, questions have persisted about whether Kratochvilova’s heavily muscled body and speed were achieved naturally or augmented by the illicit use of anabolic steroids. She has always denied using steroids, and has attributed her physique and success on the track to the rigors of farm life as well as voluminous weight training and vitamins.
Yet, documents viewed by The New York Times indicate that Kratochvilova’s name appeared in 1984 and 1987 in association with Czechoslovakia’s secret and systematic doping program, known by the euphemism of “Specialized Care.” One document is a list of track and field athletes to be selected for a more centralized version of the program.
A second document detailed the results of an internal doping control test used to flag athletes who would risk testing positive for banned substances at international competitions. Kratochvilova’s test showed up as negative, according to the document.
The documents cast suspicion but do not provide indisputable confirmation that Kratochvilova used banned substances, antidoping officials said.
“Morally you could make the case, but not legally,” said Jaroslav Nekola, who became the founding director of the Czech Anti-Doping Committee in 1990, shortly after communism in Czechoslovakia fell peacefully during the so-called Velvet Revolution. (The Czech Republic and Slovakia officially separated in 1993.) He provided The Times a look at the documents.
Kratochvilova was born, and still lives, in the village of Golcuv Jenikov. As a girl, she worked on her uncle’s farm, harvesting beets and potatoes by hand. When Track and Field News named her athlete of the year in 1983, the accompanying story by a Czech journalist said, “At 12, she was already able to toss a pitchfork of hay into the loft as well as any adult farmer.”
While working as an accountant and training for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Kratochvilova sometimes ran beneath streetlights at 4 in the morning before heading to her job. At those Games, even as a part-time athlete, she won a silver medal at 400 meters for Czechoslovakia.
She then began training full time here on a cinder track and forest paths. The stories about her immense willpower and strength are legendary in the track world. And whether they are repeated matter-of-factly, or told with awe or wariness, they remain astonishing.
She sprinted in spiked shoes on a frozen pond when snow covered the cinder track in winter. She ran repeats of 200 meters while dragging a tire filled with varying amounts of sand. To recover from surgery on her left Achilles’ tendon, she dashed through a foot of water in a pool, wore a weighted vest and placed a gas mask over her face to restrict her breathing and raise her pulse rate.
“It didn’t work very well,” Kratochvilova said. “I could barely see through the mask.”
According to Kratochvilova and her coach, she possessed such power and stamina that, in a single, several-hour session of weight lifting, she could hoist up to 25 tons. A Czech newspaper said it was 16 tons. Either amount, while not independently verified, would be extraordinary.
Miroslav Kvac, the coach, said Kratochvilova needed coaxing to nap between morning and afternoon training sessions.
“I had to lock her in a room because she didn’t want to sleep,” Kvac said.
“A cloakroom,” Kratochvilova clarified.
Still, her performances from 1983 — the world record at 800 meters and another world record of 47.99 seconds at 400 meters, since surpassed — have served as Exhibit A for supporters of the record-elimination proposal made by European Athletics.
Even if her record is abolished, Kratochvilova said, “It will still be in my head and the heads of others.”
It seems inevitable that any attempt to delete records en masse will end up before a judge or an arbitrator. Mike Powell of the United States has threatened legal action if forced to abdicate his 1991 world record in the long jump of 29 feet 4¼ inches.
Paula Radcliffe of Britain, who in 2003 set the women’s marathon record in 2 hours 15 minutes 25 seconds, has called the proposal a “heavy-handed way to wipe out some really suspicious records.”
Radcliffe said in a statement that it was “cowardly” to sweep aside all records “instead of having the guts to take the legal plunge and wipe any record that would be found in a court of law to have been illegally assisted.”
This raises important questions, especially about Eastern bloc athletes. How ethically responsible were they? By what standard should they be judged? Should they be stripped of world records because they competed in systems that have been discredited? Or should officials have to prove their complicity in doping case by case, relying on incontrovertible evidence instead of suspicion, no matter how well informed?
“There must be a reason given for the abolishment,” said Dr. Arne Ljungqvist of Sweden, a retired, longtime medical and antidoping expert with the I.A.A.F., the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
“You cannot just start over again for no reason,” Dr. Ljungqvist said. “One can have suspicions, even well-founded suspicions. But as sports leaders, we have to have the proof. Unless we have proof, we can say nothing.”
To meet Kratochvilova today is to meet a former star who is not conspicuously muscled, as many found her in the 1980s. She is trim and more closely resembles a fit jogger than a chiseled champion.
On July 26, 1983, at a meet in Munich, Kratochvilova ran 800 meters in the stunning time of 1:53.28, shattering the previous record of 1:53.43. Only one runner has come within a second of her performance in the nearly 34 years since. The winning time in the women’s 800 at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was a full two seconds slower.
On Aug. 10, 1983, at the world track and field championships in Helsinki, Kratochvilova set another world record of 47.99 seconds in the 400. Her record has been broken, but it remains the second-fastest time ever. On the official television broadcast, a British commentator said in evident wonder at her power: “Just look at the build of Kratochvilova. Built almost like a field event athlete.”
Others offered harsher assessments of Kratochvilova’s physique. An article in The Chicago Sun-Times from Helsinki carried the headline, “Is Czech star really a she?” and, in a slashing basketball reference to Julius Erving, suggested she should be called “Doctored J.”
Leroy Perry, an American chiropractor who consulted with many athletes, told The Sun-Times, “I’ve never seen a female athlete, unaided by male hormones, that strong.”
Others felt more sympathetic. Doriane Lambelet Coleman, who participated in the record 800 race and is now a law professor at Duke, said recently in reference to Kratochvilova’s physique: “No one does that to themselves. I always felt sorry for her. I just assumed she was a pawn in this machine. She seemed like a really nice person.’’
Today, Kratochvilova does not seem angry or defensive talking about suspicions of doping, only resigned. “I got used to it,” she said. “I don’t care anymore.”
She is tanned from gardening and coaching and still moves with the lightness of an athlete, except for a slight limp in her left leg, from what she described as a “rotting” Achilles’ tendon.
Otherwise, she said, her health was fine. Her body grew accustomed to field work when she was young, she said, and her hips and shoulders and knees were able to handle the stress of relentless training.
“I’m a girl from the countryside,” Kratochvilova said.
During a half-hour interview, she seemed nervous at first, eventually relaxing and joking about what it was like to coach teenagers.
“They don’t want to do anything,” she said. “Maybe the youth could use some socialism.”
She is not judged in the Czech Republic the way she is in the West. Here, she is viewed as a sympathetic, even tragic figure.
There is a monument to her achievements in the curve of the track in Caslav, where she trained and now coaches. The Czech track and field federation has said it would not scuttle her record, even if the I.A.A.F. did. Her sympathizers note that she reached the top of the world in an era when Eastern bloc athletes served as stage props in a political morality play. And they lament that Kratochvilova has essentially given her whole life to a sport that may soon turn its back on her.
Nekola, the former director of the Czech Anti-Doping Committee, and a colleague plan to publish a report about Czechoslovakia’s systematic doping by the end of the year. The working title is “The Truth About Our Sports in the 1980s.”
After the Velvet Revolution, officials were reluctant to explore the dark corners of Czechoslovakia’s sporting past, Nekola said. There was concern about embarrassing respected athletes and vulnerability to lawsuits. And, unlike in the former East Germany, where meticulous and damning records were found after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many documents related to Czechoslovak doping went missing, having been kept imprecisely, misplaced or destroyed, Nekola said.
Systematic doping was exposed in 2000 in a book by Jan Hnizdil, a Czech doctor. Then, in 2006, documents that detailed the use of steroids were published by the Czech newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes.
Nekola is wrapping up his own investigation. From 1984, he has found a list of 44 track and field athletes who were to undergo “specialized care” when the program, then operated separately by various sports, became centralized in Czechoslovakia in 1985.
Kratochvilova’s name is first on the list.
A separate document shows an internal doping control test given to Czechoslovak athletes on Sept. 7, 1987. In Eastern bloc countries, such urine tests were used as safeguards to ensure athletes receiving banned substances would pass drug tests when they traveled abroad for competitions. Athletes found to have detectable levels of steroids, Nekola said, were prohibited from traveling to international competitions.
The document, first uncovered by Mlada Fronta Dnes in 2006, reported that Kratochvilova’s test was negative.
Yet, Nekola emphasized, the available records are incomplete. He has found no document showing that she signed a consent form, as required, to participate in the doping program. And he has located no document showing dates and doses of drugs administered to Kratochvilova.
“We don’t have it concretely with her,” Nekola said, adding, “There are many question marks.”
Asked whether she knew about the program of “specialized care,” Kratochvilova gave an answer she has given before: “Nobody ever forced me. I don’t recall anyone coming to me and saying, ‘You have to take this.’”
If anyone had, she told the Czech newspaper Pravo in 2015, “I would have refused anyway.”
She and Kvac, who coached her for 20 years, have long said that Kratochvilova’s great performances were achieved by fierce determination, rigorous training and strength built from large — but perfectly legal — amounts of oral and injectable vitamin B12.
“We took the road of innovation,” not doping, Kvac, 85, said in a separate interview at his home outside the Czech mountain village of Horni Lipka.
Vitamin B12 was a familiar explanation given for positive drug tests in the 1980s, said Dr. Christiane Ayotte, director of the World Anti-Doping Association-accredited laboratory in Montreal.
Science does not indicate that B12 has anabolic, or muscle-building, properties that enhance performance, antidoping officials said. Otherwise, its use by athletes would be prohibited.
“A smoke screen,” Dr. Ayotte said in an email.
Questions on What to Do
By all accounts, Kratochvilova never failed a drug test at a competition, or humiliating sex tests given at the time. But it means little that any athlete passes an antidoping test. That alone is no guarantee of legitimate performance, as illustrated by the ruined career of Lance Armstrong and the furtive doping program carried out by Russia when it hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Kratochvilova competed in an era that was a pharmacological free-for-all, in the East and West, with the use of steroids. International drug screening in that era was porous and indifferent. Officials, including Americans, acknowledge they were reluctant to catch the top stars, fearing it would damage the sport. That changed somewhat when the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids after winning the 100 meters at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
Anabolic steroids, which permit unyielding training and quick recovery from workouts and injury, do not turn an average person into a star. Rather, they can provide talented and driven athletes, in sports like track and field, a small and decisive improvement in events that can be won by hundredths of a second or a quarter of an inch.
So what to do with the older records?
Some cases seem clearer than others. In 1985, Marita Koch of the former East Germany surpassed Kratochvilova’s record at 400 meters with a time of 47.60. Like Kratochvilova’s record in the 800, it is considered unapproachable by many.
Koch has not admitted using banned substances. But documents uncovered after the Berlin Wall fell have indicated doses and dates for her use of the steroid Oral-Turinabol.
John Hoberman, an antidoping expert at the University of Texas who has studied performance-enhancing drugs for more than three decades, said it was “inexcusable” for the I.A.A.F. to not have acted against records where there was “compelling circumstantial or laboratory evidence” of the use of illicit substances.
He includes Koch’s and Kratochvilova’s records in that category.
“I wouldn’t take seriously for a moment the idea that Kratochvilova was getting vitamins,” Hoberman said.
Nekola, the Czech antidoping expert, said any revocation of records should carry an asterisk. It should be clearly stated, he said, that athletes participating in state-sponsored systems were victims. That they were treated like “guinea pigs,” essentially left with no choice if they wanted to remain at the elite level and enlisted in a scheme where sport could not be separated from Cold War politics.
“If we cancel the records, automatically athletes will be the guilty ones in the eyes of the public, but the true guilt lies with the system,” Nekola said.
He added: “I do not want individual athletes to be judged. But I believe we must judge the system that required them to take banned substances.”