Life after Ma's Army

Ever since Wang Junxia set the current world records in the women's 10,000 and 3,000-metre races, she has been one of the world's best-known runners. But when she was in middle school, her teachers didn't know what to make of her. The school was in a small town near the northeastern port

city of Dalian and because there weren't many students, athletics classes were held coed. The skinny youngster from a working-class family ran with boys older than her, and she won. 'My teacher,' she says modestly, 'was very surprised'.

When Wang's school arranged for her to compete at one of China's more than 3,000 specialised sports schools, the bottom rungs in the State's decades-old sports machine, she won again, even though she had never received formal training. That result was enough to gain her a spot in the programme, and when she graduated three years later she was elevated to the national team and put under the tutelage of Ma Junren, a former prison guard and farmer.

Wang and her teammates - who became the infamous Ma's Army - turned the sports world on its head. In 1993 alone, they broke 14 world records and among the proteges, Wang stood out. She was only 20 years old when she clocked a blistering 29 minutes and 31 seconds in the 10,000 metres, 42 seconds faster than the previous 'invulnerable' record. At the end of China's seventh National Games, Wang had set four world records in three events over six days.

Wang's story, from her rise from poverty to her natural talent and success through sheer will, was once typical of China's national athletics.

The 3,200 national team members and the roughly 17,000 full-time athletes supported by China's provincial and city governments, Wang says, still train 'very hard'. But China's sports system is also becoming more professional and, according to Wang, 'more scientific', with growing emphasis on nutrition, health and even psychology.

Wang, who has short hair and an easy smile, thinks the change is for the better. When she trained under Ma, he had the team run daily marathons at high altitude on the Tibetan Plateau, far more than the 50 to 100 weekly miles chalked up by most elite women runners. He also made the athletes take a wide range of traditional Chinese medicines, including turtle blood, powdered deer horns and sea horses, all thought to increase stamina and strength, and he demanded they keep their hair cut short and prohibited dating.

Sometimes, Wang says, he insulted and hit girls who wouldn't - or couldn't - keep going. 'Training was like being in the military,' she says. But, she adds, that's why she won. 'If you don't push yourself to your limit, you can't be the best'.

Besides being exhausted by the workouts, Wang and her teammates were dogged by accusations they were using performance-enhancing drugs.

After the 1993 China National Games, Joan Allison, the manager of Britain's track and field team, told the press she believed 'very strongly' the women had used steroids. Other sceptics suggested the women might have been closet transsexuals or products of bioengineering.

Wang, now 31 and retired from competitive running, dismisses the allegations. Her success, she says, was simply the result of years of 'eating bitterness'. But accusations China will do anything to win are hard to shake, although a number of leading Western nations have now been exposed for drug-taking.

With corporate sponsorships becoming commonplace and athletes becoming household names and winning lucrative marketing contracts, China is trying to clean up its image, as well as improve its sports system.

According to Chinese Olympic Committee vice-president Wang Jun, China's budget to train the nation team has risen to US$200 million for the 2001-08 period, part of which goes to testing athletes for banned substances.

Athletes benefit both from the increased spending and from a US$480 million construction budget for the Games. Already Beijing has opened new cycling, swimming and shooting centres fitted with the world's best equipment.

That's a far cry from when Wang and her teammates slept six to a room and coach Ma studied the strides of animal species to glean training techniques. 'Then, we just ran. Now the running team uses all kinds of specialised equipment,' says Wang, who carried the torch in Athens and stayed on as a commentator for Shanghai media.

The brutality of the daily workouts that Wang endured took a heavy toll on her body. In 1994, she quit Ma's team to escape from his extreme training methods, and she blames the regimen for a career-ending nervous disorder in 1997, shortly after she won gold and silver medals at the Atlanta Olympics.

Brutal workouts, Wang says, are also partly to blame for falling interest in China's sports system. 'If I had a relative who wanted to go to a sports school,' she says, 'I would tell them not to go. I'd tell them to study instead.' Rising incomes, she says, also play a role. 'Now,' Wang says, 'kids have a lot of other choices.'

That's not to say that China's centralised sports programme, which is funded by taxes and earnings from a sports lottery, is failing. As in the 1970s and 80s, children as young as six are offered spots in thousands of sports schools across the country and natural athletes are identified at twice yearly school track and field 'sports days'. From the sports schools, the best athletes are shuttled upwards to provincial 'key sports schools', where top performers may train up to eight hours a day. That creates a corps of future champions that China's national teams can pick from.

The problem, Wang says, is that although China's sports programme continues to reach full enrolment, some of the most athletic youths are choosing to focus on academics instead, seeing book learning as a surer route to a good job and comfortable life. That might mean declining medal counts as early as 2008.

But because China's economic changes, including the growing connections between athletes and companies, are also producing a new generation of kids who participate in sports because they want to, not because they have to, the question of whether China will produce more or less successful athletes in the future is complicated.

Sports idols like Yao Ming, a centre for the Houston Rockets NBA team, and professional Chinese basketball and soccer leagues founded in the mid-1990s are generating interest in club and amateur sports leagues, and private coaches and teams are proliferating.

For Wang, the change to a more voluntary sports system is good news. She opened a running club in Shenyang, a large industrial city in the north east, two years ago and keeps the focus strictly on having fun and staying healthy.

At 31, she believes that if she had trained hard 'for a year or two' she could have won gold in the five and 10km races in Athens. But after years of gruelling practices, she was not willing give up her comfortable life to make the commitment. 'I'm happier now,' she says.

The question for China is whether the softer approach to sports will win medals, or even if scoring high on the medal tally really matters.

With China already focused intently on 2008, the State, which nearly tripled the size of the national team after it won the rights to host the 2008 Games, will want to come away with as many victories as possibl.

But for Wang, winning is no longer about being fastest.

When new running club members ask her why they should join, she tells them that sports are healthy. 'And,' she says, 'fun'.