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Strength Is Her Strength

Jarmila Kratochvilova was an easy winner in her U.S. debut, but only in practice was her full power evident

The most telling moment of last Friday for Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia didn't come in the evening, when she competed in the Sunkist indoor meet half mile, but at noon, when she ran on a plywood track for the first time. "So loud, the wood," she said, jogging heavily. "In Europe we have indoor races on the same artificial surfaces as outdoors. And the tracks are 200 to 300 meters, so the turns aren't so steep."

She accelerated into one of those banked turns. The empty Los Angeles Sports Arena echoed to a loud report, not quite like a gunshot. It sounded more as if a bolt in the track's substructure had popped. But then Kratochvilova took off her shoe and held it up with a grin of astonishment. She'd broken off one of her spikes.

One would expect nothing less. The strength it takes to shear steel is what carried Kratochvilova to women's world records in the 400 (47.99) and 800 (1:53.28) meters last summer and to gold medals in both events at the World Championships in Helsinki. However, she wasn't in Los Angeles to set any records. "No," said her interpreter, Jan Popper, a Prague sportswriter. "This race tonight is for—how can I put it?—for refreshment. A test of her training."

Kratochvilova had been in town for two weeks and would stay two more. "We're here to do pre-Olympic studies on her acclimatization," Popper continued. "Everyone knows that after you have come through many time zones there are days, the third, the fourth, when you feel terrible. But Europeans are now believing in a second weak time, around 11 or 12 days. It's true for many. But Jarmila never felt it."

Instead, she put in two hard training sessions a day, doing such things as 15 brisk 300-meter intervals of 47 seconds each, with 100 meter trots in between. Miler's work. "The philosophy of her training," said her gently smiling, roly-poly coach, Miroslav Kvac, "is that building endurance doesn't have a negative effect on her speed."

Indeed, it has been the slow accretion of endurance over the past few years that Popper credits for Kratochvilova's remarkable improvement at a relatively advanced age. She turns 33 this week. She didn't break 53 seconds in the 400 until she was 27. When she was 29, she ran a 49.46 to finish second behind East Germany's Marita Koch in the Moscow Olympics. She didn't take up the 800 in earnest until she was 31. She became the world-record holder at 32.

To some, her improvement has been the result of immensely lengthy efforts at translating her raw strength into racing performance—"When she was only 12 she could toss a pitchfork of hay into the loft as well as any adult farmer," says Popper. To others, Kratochvilova's transformation has been brought about by drugs, specifically steroids.

Dr. Leroy Perry, the Los Angeles chiropractor who has had years of close experience with athletes, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times the day before the Sunkist meet as saying: "I've never seen a body like that. 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."

Other observers aren't so sure. Kratochvilova has, after all, passed every drug test she has taken, as well as the chromosome test for eligibility in women's international competition. She's also from a society that doesn't agonize over any supposed compromise of femininity by sport. Czechoslovakia-born Martina Navratilova, no stranger to the it's-not-fair-because-you-have-muscles argument, says, "We never got any mixed signals like kids do here. You're just an athlete, not a man or a woman. I think it's important to note that there is no word for tomboy in the Czech language."

No need for one with Kratochvilova, because she's a shy, small-town girl. Despite repeated invitations to live and train in Prague, Kratochvilova remains in Golcuv Jenikov, a village of 5,000, some 50 miles south of the capital, where she was born. In L.A. she was most affected by the cornucopia of a Safeway supermarket and by her first look at a real ocean, but she spent much of her free time shopping for toys for her seven nieces and nephews. "She's so sweet, she's just the perfect aunt," says Kim Allen, a special ed teacher in Culver City who has served as a volunteer host to the Kratochvilova party.

Allen grew protective of Kratochvilova's privacy because her visit has touched off widespread newspaper discussions of just how concerned women athletes are with appearance and because promoters were wild to have her come north and east to their meets. "But no," Popper said to them all. "Our purpose here is only to plan a happy return in summer, for the Olympics."

That same plan, carried out by U.S. athletes, can take the bloom off the pre-Olympic indoor season. A peak in August often dictates a valley in January. Accordingly, results at the Sunkist weren't the equal of those of previous years. In the mile—despite the promise implicit in rabbit Pete Churney's flinging raw carrots into the crowd while he warmed up—Steve Scott's winning time was 3:57.69, exactly 10 seconds slower than his outdoor American record. Even the confrontation between vaulters Billy Olson and Pierre Quinon of France, which Olson won on fewer misses at 18'8¼", didn't quite live up to expectations; six days before, Sergei Bubka of the U.S.S.R. had broken Olson's indoor world record with a leap of 19'¾".

So the most vivid image of success for the 13,307 spectators was Kratochvilova's 880. She and Kvac had meticulously worked out splits that would yield a 2:01 (the women's indoor world record is Mary Decker's 1:59.7). Cynthia Warner of the L.A. Mercurettes led early, at a 1:55 pace, but predictably slowed. Kratochvilova passed her just before the 440 mark, which she hit in 61. Later Kratochvilova would say she'd found it hard to keep her momentum on the turns, but she ran away, head bobbing distinctively, to win by 30 yards in 2:02.85.

Then she trotted half a lap and got a pat on the head from Kvac. She seemed less sweaty than at the start. It had been what she had wanted, a refreshing romp. "I worried a little about the people being so close to the track," she said. Her voice is very soft. "It's all really new." She inspected her shoes. The spikes were all in place. Her award for being female athlete of the meet was a Cuisinart. It was difficult for anyone to explain to Kvac how this differed from a meat grinder.

When the press crowded around, there were the inevitable questions implying Kratochvilova had sacrificed femininity for performance. She mildly ignored them. One thought of the remarks of Brooks Johnson, the Stanford and U.S. Olympic women's coach. "The times she ran are reachable by others who are willing to train hard," he was quoted as saying by Julie Cart in the Times. "As long as we talk only of her body, then what she accomplished remains—in the minds of other women athletes—out of the ordinary. We make her a freak. Then American women will look at her and believe the only way they can achieve those times is to look like her. They have to see her as normal, or her accomplishments will never seem attainable."

Allen fumed that the controversy obscured the humanity of her guest. "The critical press doesn't see her buying mascara and trying on dresses," Allen said. "The work she has gone through is visible in her body. I admire that so. She is part of my family now, and I love her."

What Allen said next seemed to guarantee that Kratochvilova, far from being regarded as freakish, will be increasingly seen as a legitimate embodiment of physical expression. "I'm lifting weights now. I want a body like that someday."