In centuries-old Chinese Iconography the character for phoenix has been used to represent woman. As China makes like a firebird economically, the People's Republic is tracing a parallel ascent in international sports and doing so on the wings of the gender that Mao once said "holds up half the sky."
She is only 23, but Wang Junxia has already written her own Phoenician chapter in the annals of Chinese athletics. Her first rise was unlikely enough: Wang, a fisherman's daughter from the rural northeast, became such an accomplished runner that in 1993 she mocked the world record in the 10,000 meters, breaking it by 42 seconds. At the time she was indentured to coach Ma Junren, the running guru whose so-called Family Army submitted to a regimen of exotic elixirs; daily training sessions that sometimes included running the equivalent of a marathon; a ban on frills such as boyfriends, makeup and long hair; and (presumably to rid the human machine of any nonessential parts) mandatory appendectomies.
But in 1994 Wang padded out of Ma's camp on her size-6 feet with at least 11 other runners, citing beatings, misappropriation of winnings and medical neglect. The coach's control was so total that he also allegedly attempted to arrange for Wang to marry his son and kept from her the news that her brother had died in a traffic accident. The runners began training on their own, but without a coach Wang languished. She fell out of the world rankings for the 10,000 last year and lost a 5,000 last October to the latest foot soldier in her old coach's reconstituted army, a teenager named Jiang Bo.
That set the stage for China's national track and field championships in Nanjing two months ago, when the most astonishing reversal of fortunes took place. Without Ma, who was being treated for an intestinal ailment back in Beijing, none of his female Manchurian candidates for the Olympic team won a thing—not Jiang, who came up lame in the 5,000-meter final and withdrew from the 10,000, and not the lone holdover from the old Family Army, Qu Yunxia, who's reported to have stayed with Ma only because her parents are indebted to him for the house in which they live.
Meanwhile Wang, who had been training for several months under the lighter hand of coach Mao Dezhen, clocked a 14:51.87 in the 5,000, the year's fastest time. Two days later, in a preliminary heat of the 10,000, she ripped off a 31:01.76, the best time in that event in two years. Twice during that 10,000 she lapped the field, and with 1,500 meters to go a fan yelled out, "Lap 'em a third time!"
Smiles do not readily cross Wang's face. But at that remark this 5'3", 99-pound waif, without the slightest break in stride, let her visage go full-megawatt. From Ma to Mao: What a difference a vowel makes.
"I'm not satisfied," Wang said shortly after coming off the track. Her remark precisely echoed that of 20-year-old swimmer Liu Limin at April's national swimming championships in Tianjin after Liu won the 100-meter butterfly with a time of 59.57 seconds—just 1.64 seconds off the world record—which would have left most other swimmers content.
Attitudes like Wang's and Liu's are one reason that women won 34 of China's 54 medals in Barcelona four years ago and are expected to do at least that well in Atlanta. But there are many other reasons as well. Chinese women pull up their performances by frequently training with men. Chinese sports officials believe that the physiological differences between Asian and Western women are negligible compared with those between Asian and Western men, and are easier to overcome with rigorous training and diligent coaching. Eating disorders, that peril of many women athletes in the West, were unheard of in China, perhaps because of the absence until recently of images in advertising and the press idealizing the female form. (Hearing a foreign visitor try to explain anorexia recently, a Chinese sports journalist furrowed his brow uncomprehendingly and then said, "Here, only people without food starve to death.")
There is, alas, ample evidence in China of the worldwide scourge of performance-enhancing drugs, which have a greater effect on women than on men. China's woman swimmers would be even more of a threat in Atlanta if such champions as Lu Bin and Yang Aihua hadn't been busted for anabolic steroids at the 1994 Asian Games and banned from the '96 Olympics.
But cultural factors may explain the Chinese athletes' success as much as anything. Chinese women are born into a hard life. Their coaches, nearly all of whom are male, operate in an environment influenced for thousands of years by three prominent Confucian principles: A girl shall obey her father; a wife, her husband; a widow, her son. More than one out of every three Chinese women can't read, a rate 22% sorrier than that of Chinese men, because many parents and bureaucrats don't see the value of educating girls in a patriarchy; male heirs are so prized under the government's single-child policy that female infanticide is not unusual. And while the practice of binding women's feet to keep them from running off was halted early in this century, women are still sometimes forcibly sterilized or sold into marriage. Faced with those rows to hoe, a Chinese woman might not find the task of winning an Olympic medal particularly daunting.