What happened to the Chinese Olympians?
Posted: Friday August 29, 2003 6:33PM; Updated: Friday September 12, 2003 10:48AM
Call it the greatest disappearance since Jimmy Hoffa. Or just call it a shame.
Ten summers ago, in the midst of an ambitious campaign to bring the Summer Olympics to Beijing, a mysterious band of peasant girls, coached by the hot-tempered, chain-smoking Ma Junren, set the track world on its heels. The performance staged by "Ma's Family Army'' remains, by almost all accounts, the most astonishing breakthrough in the history of track and field:
Six medals out of a possible nine, including gold in the women's 1,500, 3,000 and 10,000 meters, at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.
A world-record assault in all three events a few weeks later at China's National Games.
An unprecedented sweep of the top four places at the World Cup marathon a month later in Spain. They didn't just win, they won big. The young women destroyed world records, all of which remain unchallenged. So where have all the fleet-footed pixies gone? Only Wang Junxia, who eventually split from Ma's tutelage amid claims of over-training and a forced engagement to his eldest son (a marriage that never materialized), managed to capture another gold, winning the 5,000 meters at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Coach Ma fell out of favor with the government. Everyone else vanished. At the World Championships that close out this weekend in Paris, the only Chinese runner of note is 10,000-meter bronze medalist Yingjie Sun -- and she's relatively new on the scene. Sadly, the disappearing act only adds fuel to suspicions that the performances by Ma's Army were drug-enhanced, although no top Chinese distance runner is known to have flunked a drug test. "Those times -- when everybody saw those times, it was just sort of circumspect,'' said Libbie Hickman, a member of the U.S. 10,000-meter team at the 2000 Olympics. "It's one thing to dominate like that, but then to sort of come out of nowhere. ... And the women did so much better than the men, which is always a little bit strange.'' From the outset, rival runners and coaches questioned how a nation with little distance-running tradition could overnight dominate and obliterate so many records. Had they duplicated their stunning performances at other Worlds or Olympics, the Chinese may have gained a measure of acceptance. Instead, the passing of time has created more doubts. "Maybe [drugs] played a bigger role than we thought,'' said Dave Martin, chair of sports medicine for USA Track and Field and a physiology professor at Georgia State. "When the Chinese girls did well in '93 at Stuttgart, I pooh-poohed the notion of drugs. In my virgin stupidity, I preferred to say they are innocent till proven guilty. I built a case for them being innocent. "Certainly, Wang Junxia did well in Atlanta and did well under circumstances where she was [drug] tested. But you'd think that if the others were genuine athletes with a sense of running and love of the sport they would have continued. And now that I have seen the fact that they have all sort of disappeared, I don't think they were legit.'' As I learned in two trips to China leading up to the 1996 Olympics, several things were in play at the time of the jaw-dropping performances, particularly in track and swimming. Success intoxicated the Chinese. They got too greedy. The concept of substantial performance bonuses, an idea borrowed from the West, created well-to-do groups of athletes and coaches (I was told by a runner that Coach Ma kept the Mercedes Benz his girls earned at the '93 World Championships). It also swayed coaches to play medicine man with young athletes' careers. In addition, the government was intent on dispelling the notion that China was a rinky-dink sports nation as it bid for the 2000 Olympics. The drug rumors, in retrospect, crippled Beijing's bid and the city only was named host for the 2008 Summer Games after the government enacted a 1995 sports law cracking down on drug use. On a January night in 1994, I sat alongside the Chinese national swim coach as one of his athletes, Zhong Weiyue, powered through the water to shatter Mary T. Meagher's 13-year-old world record in the 100-meter butterfly. Chen Yunpeng barely reacted. No shrieking whistle from the coach. Nothing. OK, the Chinese women were swimming to records nearly every time they dove in the pool, so it was no big deal. Except the 19-year-old swimmer in this case tested positive for steroids -- as did many others. It was this loss of face, coupled with failure to land the 2000 Games that led to a get-tough stance on drugs. And so, on the eve of the Sydney Olympics, China sports officials withdrew 27 athletes, including six of Coach Ma's runners. Now, the world has more reason to wonder about the records left behind.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.