By Timothy Carlson and Cameron Elford
When Germany’s Nina Kraft, 35, swept to her overwhelming 17-minute victory over Switzerland’s Natascha Badmann at the 2004 Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii October 16, photographers noticed a curious thing when Kraft crossed the line.
She had her head down and never looked up. She looked almost embarrassed, which many took for shyness. When Badmann crossed the line in second place, her joy was palpable and open. “Nina needs to take lessons from Natascha about giving good finish line,” said one veteran triathlon journalist at the time.
With Tuesday’s revelation that Kraft tested positive for the banned performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin, commonly known as EPO, at Ironman Hawaii, followed by her mea culpa in the German press, her muted Alii Drive finish-line behavior seems clearer in retrospect.
As quoted in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, Kraft explained her feelings after her tainted win in Kona: “I was already ashamed after the victory. Success was not as beautiful as in Frankfurt. . . . I began three weeks before Hawaii with the EPO treatment, and I quit it five days before [the October 16 race].”
“I did something stupid. The mistake cannot be rectified. I am going to bear all the consequences. I never really rejoiced over the victory in Hawaii. I was ashamed the entire time, especially in front of my family. I cheated,” she told the Hesse state radio yesterday.
Before leaving Hawaii in October, Kraft was asked about doping in triathlon. She noted, “In triathlon there is not so much money . . . that the athlete would turn to doping. It’s different from cycling and athletics. I believe that in triathlon one does not dope.”
Kraft explained what led up to her fateful decision to begin using EPO, which increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells. “In 2003, I felt as if I had my heart broken when I got a time penalty for drafting,” which helped drop her to third overall despite being a pre-race co-favorite. “I felt as if I would have won without that penalty.”
Kraft told newspapers that after her victory at Ironman Germany in Frankfurt in July, she felt extreme pressure from the German public and press to win in Hawaii. She said she and her long-time coach Martin Malleirer discussed the matter and finally decided to try EPO, as she said, for the first time.
Kraft and Malleier both confirmed her use of the performance-enhancing drug via telephone to World Triathlon Corporation president Ben Fertic this week.
“During our lengthy conversation, they were both very forthright about their mistake,” said Fertic. “We’re very disappointed that this happened at our event.”
As a result of Kraft’s EPO positive and subsequent retroactive disqualification from Ironman Hawaii, 2004 second-place finisher and four-time world champion Badmann will be awarded her fifth Ironman world title. Heather Fuhr of Canada will now move up to second place, and the third-place finisher will now be Australia’s Kate Major.
The 35-year-old Kraft faces a maximum three-year ban from the sport by the German Triathlon Federation, the DTU. “And when it is over, no one will want to speak with me,” said Kraft. “Now, I must stop training and will have all the time in the world.”
Kraft’s admission has received some praise from U.S. journalists. Writing in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, columnist Lydia Hinshaw wrote, “It’s refreshing to hear this [Kraft’s admission] instead of the usual ‘this has to be a mistake. I’ve never, ever taken a performance-enhancing substance.’”
Normann Stadler, the 2004 men’s winner in Hawaii, who returned to an adoring German public on the wave of an unprecedented German double victory in Kona, was incensed. “Nina Kraft caused heavy damage to the sport of triathlon worldwide,” Stadler, whose drug test was clean, told FAZ. “It has hurt many people who believed in it.”
Lothar Leder, the first triathlete to crack the eight-hour barrier in an Ironman, said simply, “Who can sponsors trust now?” German triathlon journalist Frank Wechsel added, “Many sponsors are reconsidering their support of triathlon and whether or not they should switch to basketball and soccer.”
The DTU has scheduled a meeting for next Wednesday to discuss tightening doping controls. According to DTU officials, strict out-of-competition testing for German short-course triathletes has yielded no positives. On the other hand, says Wechsel, there have been at least four positives among German long-course triathletes: Tomas Brown at Ironman France, Andre Bour at Powerman Italy for ephedrine, Katja Schumacher at Ironman Germany for a higher-than-legal testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio, and Kraft.
Stadler has already made a plea for the DTU to subject German long-distance triathletes to rigorous testing equal to that the ITU enforces for its short-course stars. “As a clean athlete, I would like myself and all Ironman athletes to subject themselves to this test to eliminate the black sheep in the sport.”