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First they sparked controversy by sweeping the 1,500, 3,000 and 10,000 meters at last month's World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. Then, in China's National Games that ended this week in Beijing, the People's Republic's band of preternatural women runners destroyed world records at all three distances, fanning the spark into a bonfire even as Beijing's bid to host the 2000 Summer Olympics entered the homestretch (page 46).
The binge of improbable records began when 20-year-old Wang Junxia, the 10,000-meter world champion, broke the 10,000 mark, set by Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway in 1986, by 42 seconds, with a 29:31.78 clocking. Piling amazement upon amazement, Wang placed second three days later in the 1,500 to 20-year-old Qu Yunxia, the world 3,000 champ, whose 3:50.46 smashed the 13-year-old record of 3:52.47 held by Tatyana Kazankina of the former Soviet Union; Wang's 3:51.92 was also under the old mark. Finally, Wang lead a mass assault on Kazankina's 10-year-old record of 8:22.62 in the 3,000. By the time it was over, five Chinese runners had bettered that clocking, and Wang had twice obliterated the record, running 8:12.19 in a heat and an incredible 8:06.11 in the final.
But forget 8:06.11. Chinese press reports of Wang's 10,000 had her covering the final 3,000 meters of that race in an outrageous 7:51. Had a woman really run a 4:12.6-per-mile pace for nearly two miles at the end of a 6.2-mile race, when the women's world record for a single mile is 4:15.61? Or, as some suspected, had Wang run only 24 laps instead of the required 25? The likeliest explanation was that the press accounts had simply gotten the splits wrong. Still, such a mixup fueled speculation by observers in the West that China's new champions have benefited from some startling advances in drug-assisted training. But Chinese officials indignantly pointed out that Wang, Qu and their compatriots have been tested for drugs and come up negative.
So, as ever, there is mystery in the Middle Kingdom. The mystery wasn't exactly cleared up by Ma Junren, who coaches Wang, Qu and several other astonishingly precocious runners who hail from remote Liaoning Province. At a news conference Ma held up a brown box and said it contained the key to his runners' success—"a health tonic made from caterpillar fungus." Ma said he also fed the women soup made from soft-shell river turtles and a potion extracted from a worm sold on China's herbal market as an aphrodisiac for men. He said, too, that he applied the running technology of the sika deer and the ostrich. Far from being secretive, Ma said he would gladly sell details of his methods to rivals because "we always need funds to buy turtles."
No sooner was Allen Iverson sentenced to five years in prison last week for his involvement in a bowling alley brawl (SI, July 26) than his supporters cried foul, contending that Judge Nelson Overton's punishment was too severe. Iverson, a 6'1" guard who may be the best high school basketball player in the country, will spend what would have been his senior year at Bethel High in Hampton, Va., in jail, though with good behavior he could be free by next summer.
"We're beginning to see (Clansmen in robes of a different color," said Joyce Hobson, a local schoolteacher who organized a support group for Iverson and three codefendants, all of whom are black. Benjamin Chavis Jr., national director of the NAACP, called the case "a travesty of justice."
In such a racially charged case—Iverson was convicted of three counts of maiming by mob, for knocking a white woman unconscious with a chair in a fight between whites and blacks—it's understandable that the sentence should be subject to close scrutiny. But it's also worth noting that it fell well within state guidelines, which are based on sentences in similar cases over a five-year period.