Marco Polo had it just about right. "In heaven there is paradise," he reported to Kublai Khan, "and on earth there is Hangzhou." Seven centuries later, as dawn breaks, peace still envelops West Lake, the gemstone of Hangzhou, a provincial capital south of Shanghai. A concrete promontory is peopled by elderly women engrossed in tai chi chuan. Up a stairwell, beneath a shroud of trees, a middle-aged man incants a scale, his voice carrying over a nearby glade. Everywhere people are practicing one of the solitary recreation arts: fishing, cycling, stretching, shadowboxing. One man walks slowly backward, turning over worry balls in the palms of his hands.
On the surface this scene patly conforms to the Western notion of China as serene, inward-looking, hidebound. It's a beguiling and seductive tableau, and a completely misleading one. There's symbolism in that man who can't see where he's going; he may be fingering those worry balls for good reason. Economic liberalization under Deng Xiaoping has led to a welter of entrepreneurial activity and loosed the untidiness of capitalism on the Middle Kingdom. At the same time China has shed its reputation as the sporting sick man of Asia, the nation that sent a single athlete to the 1932 Olympics and passed up the Games entirely from '52 through '76.
As a shopping center informally called the Great Mall of the People goes up in Beijing less than a mile from Tiananmen Square, change is touching virtually every aspect of Chinese sports, often adversely. A drug scandal at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, where seven Chinese swimmers tested positive for anabolic steroids, threatens China's expectation of dominating aquatic events at the Atlanta Olympics. The dictatorial methods of Ma Junren, the coach whose "family army" of teenage women distance runners set Beamonesque records only two years ago, so alienated his athletes that they defected en masse. China's medal prospects in Atlanta are still good; this is, after all, a country where, when they tell you you're one in a million, you know there are a thousand more just like you. But the Chinese are discovering that there can be unintended consequences when the government pays a bonus of as much as $10,000 for an Olympic gold medal, when local sponsors and overseas Chinese millionaires ply winners with sums 10 to 12 times more than that, and when the August First soccer team, named after the date of the founding of the People's Liberation Army, is suddenly underwritten by Nike.
During a recent tour of China, SI journalists found evidence of every dubious Western sporting practice: free agency, hooliganism, bought-out contracts, cult-figure coaches, the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and squabbles over money. Last March in Shenyang there took place an event so commercial that it seemed beyond the ken even of the modern West: an athletic "trade fair" that was almost indistinguishable from a slave market. Representatives of provincial sports commissions distributed catalogs listing some 1,300 homegrown athletes, most of them developed in regional sports schools. Physical dimensions, achievements in competition and an "asking price" were listed for each athlete. By the time the fair was over, the sports commission of Liaoning province, the event's host, had fared the best, placing 191 of its athletes with teams in other provinces and pocketing the transfer fees.
Welcome to China circa 1995. Death to running dogs and all that. But for that running boy or girl, get the best price possible.
To a people conditioned to taking cues from the Communist Party on how to think, Ma Junren must be terribly confusing, for there is no officially sanctioned opinion on the man whose runners have remaindered the track and field record book. Everyone freely chooses sides at the mention of his name. If China had a tabloid press, this millionaire celebrity, a two-fisted smoker with throat cancer who's part medicine man, part con man and part guru, would be Princess Di, O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson rolled into one.
"I only know what I read in the newspaper," says Wei Jizhong, the general secretary of the Chinese Olympic Committee, when the subject of coach Ma is brought up. But Wei's demurral is coy, for upon reading the paper you'll find Wei's and other officials' voices everywhere, calling into question Ma's autocratic excesses and his obsession with money, even as they laud his runners' achievements.
Like the foot soldiers in his family army, Ma began life poor. He went on to raise pigs and work as a prison guard—occupations that serve him well now, cynics say. For his team he chose only the most destitute, simple, homely peasant girls, and he forbade them to wear their hair long or to have boyfriends. He berated the girls and, from a rickety motorcycle with a sidecar, led them on training runs that sometimes totaled more than a marathon a day. To help them recover he fed them elixirs made of turtle blood and caterpillar fungus. Then, the runners claim, he kept (temporarily, he says) their bonuses and the Mercedes-Benzes they won at the 1993 world championships.
Ma now lives in a three-story Spanish-style villa decorated with Buddhist statuary and no bookcases. "He is uneducated," people whisper. They say this with a hiss of sanctimony, for the Mandarin creed places learning above all, and the Chinese consider someone who has exalted the physical over the mental unworthy, if not incapable, of achieving great prosperity. Ma never writes anything down; the formulas for the herbal potions with which he washes his runners' feet and for the carefully calibrated schedule of their low-and high-altitude training are in his head.
In China before the 1949 revolution men bound the feet of young women to keep them from running off. But Ma soon discovered that it's impossible to teach a girl to run and simultaneously tie her down. Early last December, fed up with Ma's methods and angry that he had withheld the fruits of their victories, 17 runners—including 10,000-meter world-record holder Wang Junxia—revolted, walking out of camp. Most did so with the support of their parents. But Ma was so essential to their success that without him, their performances have fallen off dramatically. Meanwhile Ma has become Svengali to a new crop of runners at a facility in Dalian built with at least some of the winnings of his erstwhile enlistees.