Track’s most suspect record in danger
Czech runner set 800-meter mark at age 32; doping suspected as group wants to strike 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 longeststanding outdoor world record. And perhaps its most suspect. Kratochvilova 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. Forty-five outdoor records are at stake, including Florence Griffith Joyner’s women’s records at 100 meters (10.49 seconds) and 200 meters (21.34) set in 1988.
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 being refined before being decided upon by track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations.
Sebastian Coe of Britain, the IAAF 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 sports in the Eastern bloc were 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 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.
According to Kratochvilova and her coach, Miroslav Kvac, 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.
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.