Athletics: The enduring wonder of Heike

Drechsler's stature remains cloudy even after 15 years
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IT WAS not so much a step as a leap back in time that Heike Drechsler took in Leverkusen on Sunday afternoon. The most consistently successful long jumper in women's athletics history launched from the take-off board in the Ulrich Haberland Stadion and hitched her long, lean body through the Rhineland air to a mark of 7.12m. It was her longest jump for four years, since the night she won the European championship final in Helsinki. It was achieved with wind-assistance but was, nevertheless, tangible tape- measured proof that the 33-year-old German had landed back in form.

It was timely proof, too. In Budapest this week Drechsler will be jumping for a place in the European hall of track and field fame. Only two athletes have won four European Championship titles in one event: the javelin thrower Janis Lusis and Nadezhda Chizhova, his shot-putting team-mate from the Soviet squad of the 1960s and early 1970s. Drechsler will become the third if she finishes one jump ahead this week.

The form book suggests she may do so. Though beaten by Marion Jones in Zurich on Wednesday, Drechsler showed her Leverkusen leap was no fluke, taking second place ahead of the other contenders for gold in Budapest with a jump of 7.05m. Only one other European has ventured beyond 7m this year and the former Briton Fiona May, who jumped 7.08m for her adoptive Italy in the European Cup in June, was fifth in Zurich with 6.82m.

It was Drechsler's first 7m jump without wind assistance for three years. "I wanted to show I could still do it," she said. "I was injured in 1996 and I wasn't right last summer but I had operations on both Achilles tendons 10 months ago and I've been feeling good again this year. For the first time in three years, I'm training and competing free of troubles. I've got my confidence back, which was one of my aims for 1998."

Drechsler's other target for the year is to become European long-jump champion, though if she achieved it her entry into the record books would not be unreservedly acclaimed. After German reunification, Professor Werner Franke, a biochemist from Heidelberg, uncovered Stasi files documenting the systematic administration of performance-enhancing drugs to East German athletes. Code-names were logged, rather than individual identities, but it was obvious that the athlete referred to as "jump" was Drechsler. When Franke and his wife, Brigitte Berendonk, published their findings, Drechsler dismissed the revelations as "lies". But she lost a libel case brought by Berendonk and was ordered to pay pounds 7,500 and issue a public apology.

While evidence was found that Drechsler helped the Stasi by acting as an informer within the track and field team, there is no proof, as Berendonk herself has stated, that she knowingly took banned drugs. Drechsler may have unwittingly accepted them as part of the vitamin and mineral supplementation programme to which all East German athletes were also adhered. Whatever the truth, the fact remains that Drechsler has never failed a drugs test. And she has never been banned.

"I don't need steroids," she has said. "I'm a big talent." A big talent has done big things in the past 15 years: three world titles, an Olympic gold medal, three European championships and three world records as a long jumper; a European title, two Olympic and one World Championship medal and a world record as a sprinter.

Drechsler's best performances as a long jumper (7.48m) and a 200m runner (21.71sec) are superior to those Jones has thus far accomplished in her role as the new wonder woman. Drechsler, it is fair to say, is destined to be remembered as a wonder woman too. As the former East German prodigy prepares to jump into the record books, the athletics world is already wondering just how much she has accomplished with natural talent.