Marita Koch reflects on her 25 years as the 400m world record holder
Last Monday, on October 6, Germany’s Marita Koch celebrated 25 years as the world and European 400m record holder.
Her time of 47.60 was set at the IAAF World Cup in Canberra, the last of her 11 individual outdoor world records. Among her many honours, she won the 1980 Olympic Games 400m gold medal and achieved the unique feat of winning three consecutive times - in 1978, 1982 and 1986 - over one lap of the track at the European Athletics Championships.
In an extensive interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, Koch talks about the day she set the record and her career.
What do you remember of that day in Canberra?
I went to Australia with high expectations and those were accentuated on the day of the race. I felt sick before the race but I managed to control the fear, the stress. I’d won the 200m in 21.90 but, as I’d been instructed to by Meier (her coach and later husband Wolfgang Meier), I wasn’t running flat out. I knew beforehand that if I could get below 48 seconds and also, because of my age at 28, it was my last chance as I probably could never again reach the level again.
My preparation had been perfect because the race came at the end of the season, and so I had five weeks to exclusively prepare for the race. My training times had indicated that I could get a very good result.
Did you ever run a similar time in training?
As fast at that, no, although I did hand-timed runs of around 47.8. The pressure of competition helps a lot, adrenaline always liberates more energy, but I’d also done that sort of time in relays. For 10 years I had been almost continuously the world record holder and going under 48 seconds had become an attainable target. In 1983, when (Czech Republic’s Jarmila) Kratochvilová ran 47.99 , I was focussing on improving in the shorter sprints, over 100m and 200m, in order to perform at my best over 400m the following year at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. However, the boycott prevented us from going and so 1985 became a year of vindication. One of the things that motivated me was that the World Cup was being held in Australia. Knowing that a citizen of the GDR could not normally visit Australia, I stuck at it, I was motivated, and the officials also backed me, but my original idea was to finish my career at the end of 1984, when I was at my peak. I also wanted to finish my studies in medicine, but it is worth remembering that, for me, a major motivation for being an athlete was to travel and see some of the world.
How was the race itself?
By 200m, I had caught or passed all my opponents and I hesitated for a moment, thinking that it would be difficult (to break the world record) but even at the 360m mark I felt good, fresh. In the last 30, 40 metres, the only thing that was going through my head was, “come on, don’t end up with 48.01 or something like that.” I was aware that if I was going to run under 48 seconds, that was my moment. At the finish I realized that the audience was all on their feet and I thought to myself, “I seem to have done well.” And that's when I looked at the clock.
How did it feel to break the record with that time?
(Laughs.) At first, I was just relieved to see before me there was a 47 on the clock. The hundredths didn’t matter, any time with a 47 was exciting, the rest came later. After running a 400m one is so destroyed that it is difficult to show a great joy. In addition, I've always been an introvert but I kept smiling to myself. Achieving that victory was a tremendous achievement and a personal one, I was not there as an ambassador of the GDR.
Did you think right away that the record would probably last many years?
As time passed, I saw that it would be hard to beat. To beat the record, one would have to be a good sprinter, running 100m, 200m and also the 400m, not just a 400m runner, like many are today.
When you look at the times that have been done in the 21st century and compare it to what happened in the last century, do you think that the records made by Soviet bloc athletes can be beaten?
Well, Marie Jose Perec and also now Sanya Richards have run times in the 48 seconds. I am convinced that my record can be broken, but only a very few have the potential and, above all, one has to have the qualities of a sprinter. One must be able to make good intermediate times. Technological advances have not changed much in this discipline. Perhaps changing the surface of the track can be used to improve performance, but shoes do not change much. At the end of the day, the athlete has to stay healthy and have good support, that will always be the same.
What was the key to your extraordinary performance? Hard training? The system of the GDR? Discipline? The relationship with your coach?
I took many years to reach that mark. In Prague 1984, I ran 48.16 without having trained very much after being told we were not going to be travelling to the Olympic Games, which was a farce for us, after all the sacrifices made preparing for them. We were then forced to run in Prague and we responded with little enthusiasm, but I knew then that I was capable of running 47 seconds. It’s clear that we were part of political propaganda, but nobody can perform at their best level if the motivation does not come from within, you can’t undergo the suffering or rise to the challenge.
Normally, athletes have a love-hate relationship with their coach but you ended up marrying yours?
We were always able to separate the sport and our private live, and I have always dedicated myself to the limit for the things that I thought were important. OK, I didn’t always make the maximum effort in the weight room but for the rest I worked very hard (laughs). From the age of 14 in Wismar (her birthplace), he was my coach and from 1978, when we moved to Rostock, we were more then friends.
Are you still proud of your record? Could life have been different?
I’m proud, yes, but whether (all the sacrifices) were worth it or not, each person must decide for themselves. Myself, I have no doubts, although I would have liked to finish my medical studies, but finally, I sacrificed those for my running career. In 1975, at age 18, I had the offer to study in Berlin, but I was also offered the chance to come to Rostock, so that I could prepare for the Europeans (1975 European Athletics Junior Championships) in Athens. Athens was calling and I couldn’t resist the chance to travel and participate in international events. I have always joked that if the Europeans had been in Poland that year, I probably would not have consented (to moving to Rostock). I don’t have any regrets but there is no doubt that there were other options. However, sport rewards you with moments of the greatest happiness, unique moments, but I know that If I had chosen another path, I would also have found satisfaction.
What has changed with the fall of the (Berlin) wall?
I did not suffer any impact. Here in Rostock, there was none. Some athletes have since criticised our status as being privileged, but around here, people who knew you and saw you train, understood that the privileges came from the efforts we were making. During my career, I remember only two coaches who fled, one in Tokyo, one in Turin. I never considered it, especially knowing what the consequences would have been for my family. Of course, we learned of the advantages of living in other places but, on the other hand, we, as athletes could hold our heads up high. We could even get away with some critical comments because we made up for it with our performances. One coach escaped and we were informed that we’d had a traitor in our ranks, we could not contain our smiles.
You retired at the age of 29, yet you were still young?
After 1985, I had run out of motivation. I’d won everything and had the 400m world record. However, I was convinced to compete in the Europeans (European Athletics Championships) one last time. Manfred Ewald, the head of sport in the GDR, was very clever and was able to convince me to come back. We talked, argued, and I left his office thinking, “Damn, if I do this (retire) then I'm a bad person.” I had my head filled with everything that the state had done for me and that I had to return the services rendered.