After more than 20 years out in front in the pages of the British record books, time might be about to start catching up with Kathy Cook. "It's got to be probable, hasn't it?" she said of the prospect of the national 400m record she set as a bronze-medal winner at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 – 49.43sec – being eclipsed by Christine Ohuruogu or Nicola Sanders. "Espec-ially with the edge of domestic rivalry they have between them. That will spur them on."
Indeed it should. It spurred them to gold and silver at the World Championships in Osaka last August, and Ohuruogu looks in shape to threaten the record in her opening 400m of the season in Ostrava on Thursday, having broken the 23-second barrier for 200m with an excellent 22.94sec in Osloon Friday.
Cook, for one, does not expect her 24-year-old time to survive the Olympic season. Still, it is likely to be some time before she loses the British records she holds for the 100m (11.10sec, set as runner-up to Evelyn Ashford in the World Cup in Rome in 1981) and the 200m (22.10sec, recorded in fourth place in the Olympic 200m final in 1984, two positions behind the emerging Florence Griffith-Joyner).
Now 48, a mother of three (to Sarah, 20, Matthew, 18, and George, 15) and a prep school teacher in Walsall, Cook has been unchallenged as the fastest British woman of all time for 27 years – ever since that 100m record run in Rome. In the same period, there have been 11 different holders of the men's 100m world record, up to Usain Bolt with his 9.72sec in New York last week. Anyone who watched the elegant, long-striding Kathy Smallwood, or Kathy Cook as she became when she married husband Garry, a member of Britain's silver medal-winning 4 x 400m relay quartet in Los Angeles, knew she was a sublime natural talent. Just how exceptional she happened to be, though, is still becoming clear to Cook herself.
Like most of her team-mates in the British women's squads of the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s, the Hampshire native always suspected her unbeatable East German rivals were fuelled by something more than natural talent. She noted confirmation of those suspicions in the early 1990s when documents from the East German secret police revealed detailed evidence of a state-run doping programme. Not until The Inde-pendent on Sunday brought it to her attention last week, though, was Cook aware that the Stasi files included logged dosages of the anabolic steroid Oral-Turinabol, administered to Marita Koch, the East German winner behind whom she took a bronze medal at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki in 1983 – and also a letter from Koch to Jenapharm, the state pharmaceutical company, complaining that she had been given weaker doses than Barbel Wockel, who won the European 200m title ahead of Cook in Athens in 1982.
"Gosh," she said, belatedly catching up with the machinations of the East German track-and-field machine unearthed by Brigitte Berendonk and Werner Franke in their examination of Stasi files. "I knew a bit about it, but not that much," she added.
Still, Cook had been aware that she had been cheated out of medals, or better-coloured medals – like Roger Black and the rest of the British 4 x 400m relay team, who recently discovered that Antonio Pettigrew, a member of the United States quartet who beat them to World Championship victory in 1997, had been powered by steroids.
"I really don't know what to think about it all," she said, "because you can't go back to the day and redo the race and the medal ceremony. The way I look at it is I know that on that day I ran the very best I could. And I was lucky in some ways that I always managed to get in the medals and get on the rostrum and get recognition. I can imagine it would be different if you finished fourth and lost out to athletes who weren't clean.
"The thing with me is my life has moved on, so I've lost that passion about it. I've sort of accepted it. Having the names of those athletes still as gold-medal winners and their times still in the record books is a reminder of what went on. When you look at Marita Koch's 400m time and how unattainable it seems, it's a reminder."
The asterisks in the British record books next to the names of Dwain Chambers and Linford Christie, the two fastest British men of all time, are reminders that the shadow of drugs has been cast closer to home, too. For all the cynicism that has come to cloud her old sport, though, and for all she has suffered at the hands of the chemically enhanced, Cook still retains a deep affection for track and field, relishing the opportunity to dust off the cobwebs and show her lingering paces with the kids at the Thursday night athletics club she helps to run at Mayfield Prep School.
"A lot of people seem to believe that everybody who's got to a certain standard must be on drugs, but I don't feel that way," she said. "I still like to think that most athletes are clean and doing it fairly." Just as the enduring queen of British sprinting did, she might have added.Reuse content