BERLIN (Reuters) - When Amantle Montsho snatched a landmark 400m gold medal at the world athletics championships in Daegu, South Korea on Monday, world record holder Marita Koch was too busy to watch.
The woman who holds the second oldest women’s world record, set in 1985, has long withdrawn from the spotlight, finding refuge in the fashion and sports stores she owns in Rostock, Germany.
On the day the Botswanan became the toast of Africa with a scintillating run to hold off American Allyson Felix in the final metres, the German had other things to do.
“I only saw it taped on the morning of the next day and I did not see the heats either,” admitted Koch, who now uses the surname Meier-Koch following her marriage to long-time coach Wolfgang Meier.
“There is not really much to say,” the soft-spoken Koch told Reuters on the phone in a very rare interview. “One should not necessarily expect spectacular times at major events.”
Montsho won in a time of 49.56 seconds, almost two seconds slower than the spectacular 47.60 seconds Koch set in Canberra, Australia more than two-and-a-half decades ago.
The 1980 Olympic champion from what was then East Germany (GDR) had missed the 1984 Olympics because of her country’s boycott but made up for that disappointment with one of sport’s most spectacular records.
“In the 100 metres there have also been many victories with times that have been far less spectacular,” the 54-year-old added.
“At big events, times are not as important as winning. I myself have won major races with times above 48 or 49 seconds,” she said.
Indeed Koch did, but, as opposed to the 100 metres where the record has been broken more than a dozen times since the years she competed, hers has never really been threatened.
“My record will go eventually for sure,” she said quietly, with what sounded like a hint of laughter. “I can’t say when but what is certain that, yes, my record will fall.”
Whether it will be broken soon or not, Koch’s record time is not only her legacy but also a curse.
With every record dating back to before the fall of Communism in 1989 viewed with more than just a hint of suspicion, it is easy to dismiss athletic achievements during that era as the result of systematic doping in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, including East Germany.
The German athletics federation (DLV) also views these records as tainted but has failed to have them erased for fear of legal repercussions from the athletes.
Since Germany’s reunification, Koch has consistently denied taking banned substances despite some evidence dating back to the time of the GDR linking her with the state’s doping programme.
Reducing, however, her record to merely another accomplishment of East Germany’s infamous “blue pills” or Turibanol is not really doing justice to Koch’s natural talent.
“The main weapon was those little blue pills from Jenapharm, the state pharmaceutical company... East Germany’s anabolic steroids,” International Olympic Committee medical commission chief Arne Ljungqvist wrote in his recently published memoirs ‘Doping’s Nemesis’.
As opposed to the muscle-bound former Czechoslovak Jarmila Kratochvilova, holder of the 800m record since 1983, Koch was a slim, elegant runner, whose appearance was a far cry from the steroid-pumped Eastern European products of a Cold War often fought out in the world’s sporting arenas.
Koch generally shuns interviews and her East German sporting past leaves her well out of unified Germany’s sporting elite.
It took more than four dozen phone calls to finally convince her to speak to Reuters.
When Koch, however, had enough, she simply hung up saying, “I have to go now. Customers are waiting.” Like her run in 1985, it was over very quickly.
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editin by John O'Brien