Runner's Web

Athletics in the GDR

Introduction: This is the fourth and final article in a series on athletics in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) written by Philip Hersh for the Chicago Tribune.
They are reposted here with permission.
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Ex-Sprint Queen Hears Drug Doubts...

By Philip Hersh, Tribune Olympic Sports Writer, September 14, 2000

Rostock, Germany--Marita Koch's 11-year-old daughter, Ulrike, appreciates one of the many unusual aspects of having Olympic champion and millionaire Marie-Jose Perec of France training with Koch's husband--Wolfgang Meier, Ulrike's father--in this beautiful medieval town near the Baltic Sea.

Perec, who left sprint coach coach John Smith in California to join Meier this spring, won 1996 Olympic titles in the 200 and 400 meters, events Koch dominated during a decade as an elite East German athlete. For most of the past seven years, Meier had found no work as a coach.

"My daughter says, `Mommy, not only did you get sick while training and work like a horse, you did it for no money,"' Koch said. "She understands why Marie-Jo does it a lot better than why I did it.

"I'm not envious. I don't think about [how much Perec makes] very much. It's OK. She grew up in a different country, in a different time."

Koch's time, from 1977 through 1985, was the golden age of East Germany's often ruthless system of producing top athletes whose success was intended to manifest the righteousness of communism.

There was no better example of that success than Koch, then as now humble and somewhat shy.

She was Olympic 400-meter champion in 1980, won three gold medals and a silver at the 1983 World Championships and was headed for more Olympic gold until the Soviet bloc boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Her times were even more impressive: Koch broke or tied the 200-meter world record four times and the 400-meter world record seven times.

Her 400-meter mark, 47.60 seconds at the 1985 World Cup, stands as the second oldest of any track and field event on the Olympic program. It has also been a longstanding bone of contention for Perec, which is another curious aspect of her deciding to work with the man who helped Koch achieve it.

"What a coincidence that performances got slower as soon as there were regular doping controls," Perec told France's L'Equipe magazine in 1995. "Koch's record is suspect."

No one has broken 48 seconds since Koch's mark was set on Oct. 6, 1985. Perec's time of 48.26 in the 1996 Olympic final is the fastest since 1986.

Although Koch's name has not been mentioned in the trials and revelations of past doping in East Germany, Perec was operating from the widespread assumption that all top East German athletes were given banned performance-enhancing drugs. That made the French star do some backpedaling after moving to Rostock.

"You can change your opinion . . . with age and experience one has a better comprehension of certain things," Perec said in February to the daily newspaper also called L'Equipe.

Sipping a cup of tea in warm sunshine outside one of Rostock's many 17th Century buildings beautifully restored since reunification, Koch was inclined to joke about Perec's accusations.

"I told Marie-Jo, `Now that you are training with my husband, you will learn how I worked to did this,"' Koch said, her smile impish.

"I have no bitterness about what was said. It is very natural to doubt these times being possible. When I was running 50.20 and training so hard, it seemed impossible that someone could do run 49.28 [Irina Szewinska of Poland did it in 1976] without some illegal means.

"She [Szewinska] was 30, and I was 20. It is natural that young ones who train very hard think theirs is the maximum load possible, so you make conclusions about what is possible."

Koch has followed media coverage of the doping trials, in which the former country's top doping official, Manfred Ewald, recently was given a 22-month suspended sentence for systematic doping of East German athletes. She passes some of it off as "hysteria and generalization."

"`But if it is true, as has been said, that they did it to 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds, that shakes my thinking," Koch said.

It's understandable--Koch has a daughter that age.

Koch retired at 30 in 1987 with a bad Achilles' tendon. In that era few East German athletes were allowed to continue past their prime because replacements were ready.

Ewald had asked her to continue through the 1988 Olympics. But Koch says the president of her club--SC Empor Rostock--advised Ewald "when athletes get older and have all these little aches, they should just finish. That's what I did.

"It was getting harder and harder to motivate myself anyway," Koch said. "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?"'

Koch had started to study medicine and was in her fourth year when a doctor advised her in the middle of 1989 that the stress of going to school and raising an infant was beginning to affect her heart. She left school only a few months before the Berlin Wall fell, turning the world inside out for East Germans.

A few of Meier's former East German athletes stayed with him until 1994, and then they retired, leaving him with no one until Perec arrived. He worked in the sporting goods store he and his wife opened in November 1990, three years after their marriage, a month after reunification.

The store has done well enough in the past decade that Koch and Meier expanded into a nearby building they bought for nearly $500,000. The mortgage will be cheaper than paying rent in a burgeoning real estate market, where Koch said space similar to what they need goes for up to $15,000 a month. The new store, StakenHause Mode-Koch, opened Sept. 1.

The transition to capitalism initially confused Koch. When the borders opened Nov. 9, 1989, she found it "unbelievable."

"It was a different business life and personal life," she said. "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.

"If all these things are happening now," she remembers asking herself, "why didn't they happen 10 years ago?"

Had that been the case, at the peak of her career, Koch might have gained as much financially as Perec. Yet Koch understands that the East German system was greatly responsible for her success, and she believes something has been lost in its passing.

"It is too hypothetical to say if I would still be happy in the old system but things were very nice back then, with many advantages," she said. "We were not as much competitors as colleagues and now things are very individualistic.

"It is sad that everything is centered around money. When that happens, human relationships are left behind."

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