Force to be reckoned with
By NIALL DONNELLY
BEIJING may have lost its bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games - but China's interest in the Sydney Games does not end with the recent narrow defeat in the International Olympic Committee vote in Monte Carlo.
Indeed, it is a sporting certainty that when the Australian city stages the first Games of the new millennium, China will be exerting a considerable influence on the proceedings.
In the past 10 years, the country has emerged as the newest - and potentially biggest - sporting super power, bursting on to the world scene with an impact which has astonished experts.
China began coming out of its sporting isolation in the 1970s and its progress was confirmed at the Los Angeles' Olympics in 1984, when the country captured 15 gold medals.
There was disappointment four years later in Seoul, when just five golds represented something of a setback.
But last year's Olympic Games in Barcelona proved China's most successful so far, with 54 medals - 16 of them gold - ensuring the country finished fourth overall in the standings behind the Commonwealth of Independent States, the United States and Germany.
The new Chinese strength was in evidence in the swimming pool, where the mainland's women swimmers left rivals from traditional powers such as the US, Germany and Australia, trailing in their wake.
The mainland's divers had their golden moments, there was success in the shooting competitions, the male and female gymnasts graced the winners' podium and the country's traditional strength at table tennis was there for all to see.
Perhaps the most telling success came from Chen Yueling - who strode to victory in the arduous women's 10-kilometre walk. This was the first track and field gold medal ever won by China - and as events have subsequently shown - was a sign of things to come.
For despite China's success in other Olympic sports, track and field remains the most glamorous part of the Games and a country's standing in the sporting world's pecking order is judged by its performance in the athletics' stadium.
In future, 1993 will be remembered as the year in which China arrived on the athletics' scene with a stunning impact through its women's middle-distance runners.
At the World Championships in Stuttgart, in August, Wang Junxia, 20, won the 10,000 metres, Qu Yunxia led home a Chinese sweep in the 3,000 metres and Liu Dong won the 1,500 metres.
This domination was followed by a string of record-breaking performances at the Seventh National Games in Beijing.
Wang sliced an astonishing 42 seconds off the world 10,000 metres record and then set records for the 3,000 metres on consecutive days. Teammate Qu raced to a new world 1,500 metres mark.
The man behind the performances is flamboyant former soldier and farmer Ma Junren, who coaches the women in northeast China's Liaoning province.
He puts the success of the ''Ma Family Army'' down to a rigorous training regimen that includes daily marathons and five or six sessions a year at high altitudes, plus a special diet which takes in Chinese caterpillar fungus and soft-shelled turtles.
The Chinese women's success has led to accusations from some coaches and athletes of drug use - accusations which Ma indignantly denies.
He has found an ally in Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Amateur Athletic Federation medal committee, who described the people who had alleged the Chinese athletes were taking drugs as irresponsible.
Come the year 2000, residents of Sydney will probably be listening to the Chinese national anthem more times than any other in the city's impressive new athletics' stadium.