CHINA's development in world athletics comes as no surprise to those who run the system. Almost 30 years after Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution destroyed whatever plans had been formulated in 1956, China has finally tapped the largest pool of talent in the world, namely 1.2 billion inhabitants, to become a major power, particularly in women's middle-and long-distance running.
According to He Zhenliang, China's International Olympic Committee member and president of the Chinese Athletic Federation, two men can claim the biggest share of the credit - coach Ma Junren and administrator Lou Dapeng, the vice-president of the federation and China's member on the council of the International Amateur Athletic Federation.
While Ma has devised the innovative and imaginative training regime said to be responsible for the immediate success of China's athletes, He credits Lou, who spent six years in England, with putting in place the structure which, although decentralised now, has given the federation and the provinces the opportunity to flourish.
''It really is a result of many years of effort,'' said He. ''Mr Lou has been responsible for raising the technical level of our athletes, for in the past China was more interested in ball games than track and field. If somebody follows closely the development of Chinese track and field they will see it was not a miracle.'' China's success has raised the possibility of the 1999 World Athletic Championships being staged in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, and the IAAF is certainly keen on the idea. Yet Lou believes that on the marketing side, China remains very naive, though interest in athletics is at an all-time high.
At the Seventh National Games in Beijing last month, track and field was one of a handful of the 45 sports on the programme which drew capacity crowds. But the Chinese federation still has much to achieve, though given that they only sent two or three athletes to the 1948 Olympic Games in London, they have come a long way in the past 44 years.
There have been the occasional successes in the early years: Chen Feng-Jeng became the first Chinese to break a world record when she set a high jump mark of 1.77 metres in 1957, while eight years later Chen Chia-Chuan equalled the men's 100m time of 10.0 sec. Zhu Jian-hua broke the men's high jump world record three times in 1983 and 1984.
According to Lou the first development programme began in 1956, and when the first National Games were held three years later to demonstrate the strength of sport in the provinces, similar programmes with coaches began to mushroom all over the country.
Facilities were still in short supply, however, and most of those that existed were very poor. But the idea of the ''spare-time schools'' catering for multi-sports and run by the Ministry of Sport took root and became the bedrock of China's future success. But, as Lou added, ''between 1966 and 1975 everything was stopped; everything went kind of dead''.
There are 3,300 spare-time schools in China and in some of the provinces they are very well developed. At the basic level, children aged eight to 14 go to training centres three or four times a week for 11/2-2 hours' training after school.
Promising youngsters can be set up in sports boarding schools of which there are 150, while the sports institutes provide the highest level of coaching with half-day training and half-day study. ''The facilities are better and good nutrition is guaranteed,'' said Lou.
Seventy-three per cent of China's population live in rural areas and in recent years promising youngsters have had to go to the cities, a factor which is changing now, particularly if one looks at the phenomenal recent success of the Liaoning athletes whoare jealously guarded by Ma.
In the 1950s, there was only one sports institute in China, in Beijing, but times have changed. Now there are 30 and Lou, in illustrating the spread of influence to the provinces, said that in Liaoning Province there was now a Tartan track as well as a 200m indoor track. China in all has 20 indoor training tracks while there are about 5,000 full-time coaches.
''Gradually, [the system] has been decentralised,'' said Lou. ''Ma's athletes from Liaoning have stayed there when once they would have been forced to move to the capital, though some of the poorer provinces still send athletes to the National Training Centre in Beijing, which employs some of the country's top coaches.'' The decentralisation, however, has had a major side-effect. The rivalry and jealousy between the provinces has led to friction with Beijing, and Ma, for example, complains about how little support, financially and otherwise, they obtain from the Chinese federation because of their provincial status.