In 1983, Jarmila Kratochvilova, a previously mediocre 32-year-old Czech middle distance runner, set a world record in the 800-meter run. Soon, Kratochvilova was the cover girl for Track & Field News and the subject of a profile in Sports Illustrated. It wasn’t her fast time that attracted all the attention. Rather, it was her broad-shouldered, flat-chested physique, which looked more like a middleweight boxer’s than that of a middle-distance runner.
“I’ve never seen a body like that,” a Los Angeles chiropractor named Leroy Perry told SI. “I think there is something chemically different about her physiological makeup, and it had to happen in the last five years. And I’m sure it hasn’t come from weightlifting.” At the University of North Carolina, a young cross-country runner did a double take when she saw Kratochvilova’s photo on a newsstand. “You had no idea it was a woman,” recalls Joan Nesbit Mabe, who would go on to compete in the 10,000 meters in the Atlanta Olympics and, later, become a critic of drug use in athletics.
Before Kratochvilova’s run, the 800-meter record had fallen 23 times since World War II. It has not been broken since, and now stands as the oldest world record in track and field. It won’t be broken at the Track and Field World Championships, which begin Saturday in Daegu, South Korea. Neither will any of the women’s sprint marks, which are all as dated as a Macintosh SE. Kratochvilova’s rival, East German Marita Koch, set the 400-meter record in 1985. And no one has matched the 100- and 200-meter times Florence Griffith Joyner ran in 1988.
Meanwhile, the men’s 100-meter record—currently held by the prodigious Usain Bolt—has been broken 15 times since the 1980s. As a result of his feats, Bolt is a global icon earning $10 million a year in endorsements and appearance fees. The last crossover star in women’s track was Flo Jo, more than two decades ago. At the height of her fame, Griffith Joyner had a sportswear label and a fitness column in Parade magazine. The second-fastest woman in history, America’s reigning sprint queen Carmelita Jeter, has no chance to attain those rewards.
Bolt’s Jamaican countrywoman Veronica Campbell-Brown, who ran the fastest 200-meter time of the 21st century at the Beijing Olympics, also hasn’t made it out of the agate type. The problem: She was two-fifths of a second slower than Florence Griffith Joyner. “It’s a touchy subject, but if I should be honest, I really believe men get more attention in this sport,” Campbell-Brown complained. “It’s based on the fact that the world record in the 100 meter and 200 meter for men is reachable. … It is hard for me to even think about the world record.”
While Bolt may have put the men’s sprint records out of reach for anyone but himself, the larger point still stands. In the 11 Olympic running events contested by both sexes since the 1980s, the men’s world records are an average of seven years old, the women’s 20.* Even if you include the field events, in which the male and female throwing records are both suspiciously ancient, the gap is still 11 years versus 21 years. The classicism of the women’s record book merits a radical response from track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations *: They should throw out the old records, and give today’s runners realistic times to chase.
The sanctity of the record book is a touchy subject because of the implication that the sport’s immortals used steroids. There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence, beyond Kratochvilova’s physique. East German secret police files contain a letter in which Koch complains that her performance-enhancing drugs aren’t potent enough. In 1988, Griffith Joyner suddenly packed on muscle and improved her times by half a second. After the Olympics, she just as suddenly retired, right before international track and field expanded its drug testing procedures. Flo Jo did attempt a comeback in 1996, but quit after hurting her Achilles tendon. In 1998, she died after suffering an epileptic seizure.
Male sprinters aren’t paragons of cleanliness. Ben Johnson lost his gold medal (and his world record) at the Seoul Olympics after testing positive for stanozolol. Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin also had world-record 100-meter marks thrown out after failing drug tests. No women’s records have been expunged, but that’s because there haven’t been many to expunge since the sport got more aggressive about drug testing after the Johnson scandal.
So why have men’s sprint records improved, while women’s remain frozen in time? Perhaps because steroids have a more potent effect on women than men. BALCO founder Victor Conte, who is to steroids what Owsley Stanley was to acid, has estimated that drugs can help a man lower his 100-meter time by two-tenths of a second, compared to four-tenths of a second for a woman. When men take steroids, a pituitary-gonadal feedback loop limits excess production of testosterone. Women, by contrast, begin to show male characteristics: decreased body fat, leaner muscle, facial hair, deeper voices, clitoral enlargement, male pattern baldness.
“When you give women androgen, you’re essentially masculinizing them,” says Dr. Linn Goldberg, a sports medicine specialist at Oregon Health & Science University. (Goldberg spoke as a medical expert, and does not espouse any theories on the persistence of women’s records.) As distance runner Joan Nesbit Mabe puts it, “a man can only become a faster man. A woman can become a man and get faster. They have a double boost. A woman who becomes more male, she’s basically not a woman.”
If the change in appearance was so obvious, then why didn’t the record-setters of the 1980s get caught? Kratochvilova’s critics were accused of holding her to an American standard of femininity—the Eastern Bloc version of the Caster Semenya controversy. When asked about Kratochvilova’s physique by Sports Illustrated in 1984, Martina Navratilova noted “that there is no word for tomboy in the Czech language.”
Because testing has improved in the last 20 years, athletes doping up on Cold War-strength drugs would get caught today. Marion Jones used “the clear,” or tetrahydrogestrinone, before the 2000 Olympics—a “designer steroid” altered by chemists to make it undetectable. THG, though, wasn’t powerful enough to produce a world record. Jones approached Griffith Joyner’s times in the 100 and 200 but never surpassed them.
With women’s track records out of reach for even admitted druggies, the book needs to be wiped clean. The fairest solution would be to remove every mark set before track and field instituted random drug testing in the wake of the Seoul Olympics. That would get Kratochvilova, Koch, and Flo Jo off the books. Such a move would quickly raise the profile of women’s track. Remove Griffith Joyner, and the 100-meter mark would have been broken six times since 1996, by such never-got-their-due athletes as Carmelita Jeter and Frenchwoman Christine Arron, who missed out on meet bonuses and endorsement contracts because they were pursuing an impossible standard.
Unfortunately, that won’t happen. I asked the IAAF whether an athlete such as Koch could be stripped of her record after evidence of drug use surfaced. Their response: “We cannot specifically comment as what you ask is speculation, but we can generally confirm there is a statute of limitations in our rules with a limit of eight years.”
Track fans may just have to think of the 1980s in the same way baseball fans think of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s—as an era whose achievements don’t deserve to be included in a Platonic Book of Records. Or perhaps the better analogue is swimming: In 2008 and 2009, the age of the poly-urethane body suit, more than 200 world records were broken. Once the high-tech suits were banned, it was 19 months before a swimmer broke a record in a 50-meter pool. Coaches have suggested separate record books for textile and plastic suits, so athletes don’t lose hope in the face of unreachable marks.
The truth is, we’ll never know the identity of the woman with the most natural speed in history. The best we can probably do is compare women who raced in the same era. Mabe, who finally made the Olympic team on her fourth try, in 1996, wonders how fast she could have run if she’d taken drugs. “I would have liked to have known, ‘Could I have won a gold medal instead of a bronze in the world indoor championsips?’ ” she says. “When I go to heaven, they’re going to tell me where I really finished in the world.”
*Corrections, Aug. 29, 2011: The article originally stated that the women’s world records were an average of 21 years old, and it originally misstated the name of the International Association of Athletics Federations.