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 longest-standing outdoor world record.
And perhaps its most suspect.
Kratochvilova (KRA-toke-vee-lova) 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.
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, anti-doping 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.
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.
“It didn’t work very well,” Kratochvilova said. “I could barely see through the mask.”
According to Kratochvilova and her coach, she possessed such power and stamina that, in a single, several-hour session of weightlifting, she could hoist up to 25 tons. A Czech newspaper said it was 16 tons. Either amount, while not independently verified, would be extraordinary.
Miroslav Kvac, the coach, said Kratochvilova had needed coaxing to nap between morning and afternoon training sessions.
“I had to lock her in a room because she didn’t want to sleep,” Kvac said.
“A cloakroom,” Kratochvilova clarified.
Still, her performances from 1983 — the world record at 800 meters and another world record of 47.99 seconds at 400 meters, since surpassed — have served as Exhibit A for supporters of the record-elimination proposal made by European Athletics.
Even if her record is abolished, Kratochvilova said, “it will still be in my head and the heads of others.”
It seems inevitable that any attempt to delete records en masse will end up before a judge or an arbitrator. Mike Powell of the United States has threatened legal action if forced to abdicate his 1991 world record in the long jump of 29 feet 4¼ inches.
Paula Radcliffe of Britain, who in 2003 set the women’s marathon record in 2 hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds, has called the proposal a “heavy-handed way to wipe out some really suspicious records.”
Radcliffe said in a statement that it was “cowardly” to sweep aside all records “instead of having the guts to take the legal plunge and wipe any record that would be found in a court of law to have been illegally assisted.”
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.
On Aug. 10, 1983, at the world championships in Helsinki, Kratochvilova set another world record of 47.99 seconds in the 400. Her record has been broken, but it remains the second-fastest time ever. On the official television broadcast, a British commentator said in evident wonder at her power: “Just look at the build of Kratochvilova. Built almost like a field event athlete.”
Doriane Lambelet Coleman, who participated in the record 800 race and is now a law professor at Duke, said recently in reference to Kratochvilova’s physique: “No one does that to themselves. I always felt sorry for her. I just assumed she was a pawn in this machine. She seemed like a really nice person.”
Today, Kratochvilova does not seem angry or defensive talking about suspicions of doping, only resigned. “I got used to it,” she said. “I don’t care anymore.”
She is not judged in the Czech Republic the way she is in the West. Here, she is viewed as a sympathetic, even tragic figure.
There is a monument to her achievements in the curve of the track in Caslav. The Czech track and field federation has said it would not scuttle her record even if the IAAF did. Her sympathizers note that she reached the top of the world in an era when Eastern bloc athletes served as stage props in a political morality play. And they lament that Kratochvilova has essentially given her whole life to a sport that may soon turn its back on her.
Nekola, the former director of the Czech Anti-Doping Committee, and a colleague plan to publish a report about Czechoslovakia’s systematic doping by the end of the year. The working title is “The Truth About Our Sports in the 1980s.”
From 1984, Nekola has found a list of 44 track and field athletes who were to undergo “specialized care” when the program, then operated separately by various sports, became centralized in Czechoslovakia in 1985. Kratochvilova’s name is first on the list.
Asked whether she had known about the program of “specialized care,” Kratochvilova gave an answer she had given before: “Nobody ever forced me. I don’t recall anyone coming to me and saying, ‘You have to take this.’”
If anyone had, she told the Czech newspaper Pravo in 2015, “I would have refused anyway.”
Kratochvilova competed in an era that was a pharmacological free-for-all, in the East and West, with the use of steroids. International drug screening in that era was porous and indifferent. Officials, including those from the United States, acknowledge they were reluctant to catch the top stars, fearing it would damage the sport. That changed somewhat when the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids after winning the 100 meters at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Nekola said any revocation of records should carry an asterisk. It should be clearly stated, he said, that athletes participating in state-sponsored systems were victims. That they were treated like “guinea pigs,” essentially left with no choice if they wanted to remain at the elite level and enlisted in a scheme in which sports could not be separated from Cold War politics.
“If we cancel the records, automatically athletes will be the guilty ones in the eyes of the public, but the true guilt lies with the system,” Nekola said.
He added: “I do not want individual athletes to be judged. But I believe we must judge the system that required them to take banned substances.”