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The world records set and reset between Sept. 8 and 13 by Chinese women are an affront to tested assumptions concerning human limits. When Wang Junxia chopped 42 seconds from the women's 10,000-meter record and then (in two chops) 16 seconds from the 3,000 mark; when Qu Yunxia broke Tatyana Kazankina's 1,500-meter record of 3:52.47 by running a 3:50.46 and Wang did too, with a 3:51.92; when five Chinese women surpassed world records on 10 occasions at the national championships in Beijing; and when all five were coached by the same man, then every instinct, every scientific reflex, cried out for disbelief.
Not only did the Chinese humble the best efforts of all previous female runners, but they also did it in a way that confounded our conviction, gained from research into muscle-cell chemistry, that our species is divided into hares and tortoises—into those who are fast but quickly tire and those who are slower but endure. Wang's range of distances and the searing 57-second opening lap she and Qu ran in their 1,500, after which they were still as fresh as if they had been sipping jasmine tea, required both speed and stamina in amounts that have never coexisted in one female body. Until now.
Moreover, the volume of the Chinese distance training, in which the women run almost a marathon a day at altitudes of 7,300 feet and above, seems barely survivable by itself, yet swift interval training is also required to build world-record 1,500 runners. But stress studies have shown that humans don't have enough adaptive energy to do both high-level speed and stamina training. Runners who have a record of trying to burn that candle at both ends also have a record of illness, injury or rebellion.
Therefore, since what the Chinese had done was demonstrably impossible, accusations flew. "I believe these girls are taking drugs," said British track team manager Joan Allison, who was not alone. "I feel it very strongly."
But that feeling was without supportive evidence. Forget that the Chinese runners passed their drug tests. Forget that doping control officers for the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), the world governing body of track and field, traveled to China three times in 1992 and '93 to carry out 50 out-of-season tests and that the only three positives were among field-event athletes.
Don't bother with all that, simply because no steroid or procedure for boosting red blood cells has ever had effects on distance runners sufficient to explain this great leap forward. "That potion doesn't exist," says Arne Ljungqvist, a pathologist who is chairman of the IAAF medical committee.
No, whatever is at work here, fair or unfair, is off all previous charts. Thus when the Chinese coach, the mercurial Ma Junren, was asked to explain his methods and he waxed poetic about such loopy-sounding traditional Chinese aids as the blood of the soft-shelled turtle or a tonic made of caterpillar fungus, the world's doubts were a sign of its ignorance.
Perhaps only one man besides Ma can provide real answers, and that is G�nter Lange, a coach from Hamburg, Germany. From 1987 to '89 Lange helped refine Ma's training system in Liaoning province, some 200 miles northeast of Beijing.
"When I returned to Germany, I told my colleagues that unbelievable performances would be unfolding," Lange told SI's Anita Verschoth last week. And not, he said, from steroids. "There are no signs of it. They don't have acne. They don't have deep voices. I was an assistant national coach in China, and there was never a signal given that I should [give steroids]."
Rather, said Lange, this Chinese revolution was built by tapping the talent in a pool of 1.2 billion people and tapping it early. Ma, selecting from millions, takes peasant girls into his program at ages eight to 10. "They are used to eating bitterness," he says.