Marita Koch: Greatest 400m runner unconquerable even after 36 years | Sunday Observer

Marita Koch: Greatest 400m runner unconquerable even after 36 years

19 June, 2022
Marita Koch with her Relay Team
Marita Koch with her Relay Team

Marita Koch is a German sprinter who became one of the greatest 400m runners, setting 16 world records in outdoor competitions and 14 world records in indoor competitions. Her record of 47.60 sec in the 400m, set on October 6, 1985 in Australia, still stands after 36 long years. In 2014, she was inducted in the International Track and Field ‘Hall of Fame’ as the first German woman along with Heike Drechsler.

In Moscow 1980 Olympic Games, she won the gold in the 400m and a silver in the 4x400m, while at the inaugural World Athletics Championships in 1983 in Helsinki, she was the most successful athlete with three golds in 200m, 4x100m relay and 4x400m relay and a silver in 100m. Koch also won six titles at the European Championships between 1978 and 1986 in 400m and 4x400m relay, and missed further medals at Olympic Games due to 1984 boycott.

In 1979, she became the first female to run 200m under 22 sec, setting a world record of 21.71 sec at Karl Marx Stadt, a mark that stood until 1988 when Florence Griffith Joyner of the United States broke it. In 1978-79, 1982-83 and 1985 she was elected East German ‘Sportswoman of the Year’ and in 1978-79, and 1982-83 she was Track and Field News’ ‘Athlete of the Year.’

Koch has held world records over several distances from 50m to 400m. Some of her best performances are as follows: 50m: 6.11 sec (National Record); 60m: 7.04 sec (National Record); 100m: 10.83 sec (+1.7) West Berlin, German Democratic Republic (GDR) on June 8, 1983; 200m: 21.71 sec (+0.7) Karl Marx Stadt, GDR on June 10, 1979; 300m: 34.14 sec (World Best); 400m: 47.60 sec at Bruce Stadium, Canberra, Australia on October 6, 1985.

Birth and Growth

Born on February 18, 1957, in Wismar, East Germany, Marita Koch displayed exceptional speed even as a young child. By the time she had turned 15, she was training under Wolfgang Meier who worked as a Naval engineer, but also coached athletics part-time.

Koch and her coach Meier moved to Rostock where Koch began to study medicine. However, she decided to stop her studies and focus on running instead. Koch, 171 cm and 62 kgs ran a 400m quarterfinal at the Montreal 1976 Summer Olympics (51.87), but withdrew due to injury. She set her first world record in 1977 in Milan, when she ran a 400m indoors in 51.8 sec. In 1978, she set her first outdoor record at 400m in 49.19 sec. She surpassed this with another two world records within a month.

In 1979, Koch became the first woman to run a 200m under 22 sec. Her time of 21.71 sec set at Karl Marx Stadt stood as the world record for nine years. She tied her own 200m world record in 1984. At the Moscow 1980 Olympics, Koch won the gold medal in the 400m and a silver in the 4x400m relay. Three weeks before the 1984 Olympic Games, she equaled her own record, but the East German boycott prevented her from competing in the games.

She also won the European Championships at 400m in 1978, 1982 and 1986. As a member of East Germany’s relay teams, Koch also set more world records. She was part of the East German relay teams that set new world records in the 4x100m clocking 42.10 on June 10, 1979 and 41.53 on July 31, 1983. In October 1986, she was awarded a Star of People’s Friendship in gold (second class) for her sporting success.

World Record in 400m

On October 6, 1985 at the World Cup meet, Koch set the current 400m world record of 47.60 sec. This achievement is considered far out of reach of even the best of today’s athletes. The competition was held at Bruce Stadium in Canberra, Australia, which is at 605 metres altitude. The world record 400m run had been well planned, and her basic speed and speed endurance proven in several training runs in the weeks prior.

In her world record run, Koch, running in lane 2, came out of the blocks at a blistering pace and eliminated the stagger on most of her competitors by the end of the first bend. Her 100m split time was reported to be 11.3 sec, while her 200m split time was reported to be 22.4 sec. At the halfway point, she had completely devastated most of her competitors. Her 300m split was reported to be 34.1 sec, the all-time best performance for this distance.

During the final phases of the race, the video footage only captured Koch and Olga Bryzhina of the USSR, who was trailing behind. The rest of the field had been left so far behind as Koch and Vladykina crossed the finishing line. Third place was Lillie Leatherwood, more than two seconds behind Vladykina. Koch had gained too much of an advantage in the early stages of the race. Vladykina also ran her all-time best performance of 48.27 sec.

In a 400m race, the only women to have broken the 48-second barrier are Koch and Jarmila Kratochvílová (47.99 sec at Helsinki 1983). Kratochvílová was Koch’s main rival over the distance and also a 400m world record holder in the early 1980s. Koch’s record, set at the World Cup in Canberra, Australia, has been the subject of much debate as no other athlete has ever come closer to breaking it. Koch has never failed a drugs test and has always maintained she did nothing wrong.

Koch explained the background to her world record effort to the Spanish newspaper El Pais: “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 Wolfgang Meier), I wasn’t running flat out. I knew beforehand that if I could get below 48 sec and also, because of my age at 28, it was my last chance as I probably could never again reach the level again.”

She also elaborated on the record-breaking 400m: “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. As fast at that, no, although I did hand-timed runs of around 47.8. By 200m, I had caught or passed all my opponents and 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.”

She continued: “I was aware that if I was going to run under 48 sec, 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. 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.”

Koch believed that the pressure of competition helps a lot and adrenaline always liberates more energy. For ten years, she had been almost continuously the world record holder and going under 48 sec had become an attainable target. In 1983, when (Czech Republic’s Jarmila) Kratochvilová ran 47.99, she was focussing on improving in the shorter sprints, over 100m and 200m, in order to perform at her best over 400m the following year at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

However, the boycott prevented and so 1985 became a year of justification. One of the things that motivated her was that the World Cup was being held in Australia. Knowing that a citizen of the GDR could not normally visit Australia, she was motivated, and the officials also backed her, but her original idea was to finish her career at the end of 1984, when she was at her peak. She also wanted to finish her studies in medicine, but it is worth remembering that, for her, a major motivation for being an athlete was to travel and see some of the world.

Speaking to the BBC athletics reporter Ed Harry, she clarified: “I don’t have to prove anything to myself. I have a clear conscience. I can only repeat myself... I never tested positive; I never did anything which I should not have done at that time. I didn’t achieve the world record out of nowhere. I had previously improved my time on five occasions, in slow steps, around the 48-second mark, and at some point it became a world record. Also, all world records are certainly in some way an exception, so now the next person has to come, or has to be born, who is ready to break the record. At some point, that time will come.”

The IAAF’s stance has been that there is a 10-year statute of limitations in the World Anti-Doping Agency code, to which it adheres. However, the IAAF told the BBC that “should an athlete subsequently admit to having used or taken advantage of a substance or a technique prohibited at the time,” then it could act. That could mean removing a record from the history books.

Professional Career

Among her many honours, besides her success at the 1980 Olympic Games, she 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. As time passed, she 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.

Marie Jose Perec and Sanya Richards have run times in the 48 sec. Koch was convinced that her 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.

It took many years for Koch to reach that mark. In Prague 1984, she ran 48.16 sec without having trained very much after being told that they were not going to the Olympic Games. They were then forced to run and they responded with little enthusiasm. It’s clear that they 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.

Koch described her relationship with the coach: “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. I didn’t always make the maximum effort in the weight room but for the rest I worked very hard. From the age of 14 in Wismar (her birthplace), he was my coach and from 1978, when we moved to Rostock, we were more than friends.”

On her career: “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, to prepare for the European Junior Championships in Athens. Athens was calling and I couldn’t resist the chance to travel and participate in international events. 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.”

Progression of World Records

Marita Koch established her first world record in 400m on July 2, 1978 clocking 49.19 sec in Leipzig, East Germany. Then she improved it to 49.03 and 48.94 in quick succession. She further improved her world record twice in 1979 to 48.89 and 48.60. Then, in the year 1982, she clocked 48.16 sec to register her sixth consecutive world record in the event. Her world record was broken by Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia in 1983 but a determined Koch bounced back and established a new world record of 47.60 sec on October 6, 1985 in Australia.

In 200m, Koch registered her first world record clocking 22.06 sec in East Germany on May 28, 1978, surpassing Irena Szewińska’s 22.21 from 1974. Then, she improved the record three more times, twice in 1979 and once in 1984, improving the world record to 21.71 in East Germany on July 21, 1984. Since, the record has been bettered four times and the current record stands at 21.34 in favour of Florence Griffith Joyner of the United States established at Seoul Olympic Games on September 29, 1988.

Koch was part of the 4x400m relay teams of the East Germany that broke the world records on September 11, 1982 in Athens (Kirsten Siemon, Sabine Busch, Dagmar Rübsam and Marita Koch) and June 3, 1984 in Erfurt (Gesine Walther, Sabine Busch, Dagmar Rübsam and Marita Koch) clocking 3:19.04 and 3:15.92 respectively.

On her continuation in 1986: “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 European 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 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.”

She married Wolfgang Meier who remained her coach all along her career. She retained her maiden name and is now known as Marita Koch-Meier. They are blessed with a daughter named Ulrike.

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. His email is [email protected])