08 April, 2016

Chinese revelations: doping and torture

I first heard about Ma's Army in 1993. China had been steadily progressing in women's athletics and in particular in the middle distances. In the 1992, Barcelona, Olympics Qu Yunxia won a bronze medal in the 1500 m. She was crowned world champion over 3000 m the next year in Stuttgart where the chinese successes were even more spectacular: chinese athletes swept all three medals in the 3000 m (Qu Yunxia, Zhang Linli, Zhang Lirong) and with Liu Dong and Wang Junxia won also the 1500 m and the 10000 m (while in the latter race Zhong Huandl, not a Ma athlete, progressed from 4th in the 1992 Olympics to silver medalist). 

Ma's Army

And then came the 7th Chinese National Games, held in September in Beijing. What the athletes of Ma Junren did there is simply incredible. Qu Yunxia broke the 1500 m record with a time of 3:50.46 (a record which was only beaten last year). Wang Junxia was second with 3:51.92, also under Kazankina's world record. Lu Yi, who was 4th at the World Championships, managed only a 8th place with 4:00.05. Things got even more interesting in the 3000 m. There 5 athletes broke the record of Kazankina and the times of Wang Junxia, Qu Yunxia, Zang Linli and Ma Liyan, ranging from 8:06.11 to 8:19.78 have not been bettered since (of course, the fact that the 3 km is not anymore a championships distance could in part explain this). But the really out-of-this-world performance was that of Wang Junxia over 10000 m. Not only did she break Kristiansen's world record (something which Zhong Huandl in second place also managed) but with 29:31.79 she established a record which is standing 20 years later and seems really out of the reach of the remaining athletes (the best performance to date been Melkamu's  African record of 29:53.80). And when things become like science fiction is when one looks at her split: 15:05.69 for the first half and 14:26.09 for the second half. The latter split would have stood as world record for the 5 km till 2004. In fact never did Wang manage to run faster than this split over 5000 m, her best time being a modest 14:51.87. As it was natural, these extraordinary performances raised many questions. Ma's riposte to the foreigner's disbelief was (very) hard work, high altitude training, turtle's blood, caterpillar fungus and powdered seahorse. The latter were the par excellence dietary supplements of his runners. Or were they?

Ma and Wang

And then there were none. After the '93 fireworks Ma's Army all of a sudden was disbanded. Wang and her teammates broke up with their coach in 1995. Most of the them slipped back to anonymity. Only Wang Junxia managed to stay afloat and, with a different coach, she managed to win a gold medal over 5000 m and a silver one over 10000 m in the 1996, Atlanta, Olympics. Then came the 1997, Athens, World championships were the chinese presence was unremarked, the best performance being most probably an area record by Li Xuemei over 200 m with 22.44. And then Ma made another big splash. At the 1997 8th Chinese National Games, held in October in Shanghai, his new Army dominated the middle distances again. Jiang Bo missed by half a second the world record of 1500 m in a race where 9 athletes ran under 4 minutes and the record holder, Qu Yunxia, still coached by Ma, finished just 8th. Jiang Bo took her vengeance in the 5000 m where with 14:28.09 she broke the world record established with 14:31.27 by Dong Yanmei in the heats. Dong won the 10000 m with, what can appear today as lacklustre, 30:38.09 but at the time only three women had done better than that (Kristiansen, Zhong and Wang). In fact the first 8 of the 10 km race had the 8 best performances of '97. I cannot resist the temptation to point out the two area records of Li Xuemei over 100 and 200 m with 10.79 and 22.01 which stand till today. However, given her longevity (she retired in 2006) I am sure that she was not coached by Ma. 

Li Xuemei (not a Ma athlete)

Ma did not fall from grace all of a sudden. In 1998 Ma and his athletes were excluded from participating at the Bangkok, Asian Games, because they had not participated at national meetings in the first half of the year. Just before the 2000, Sydney, Olympics six of his athletes were among the national team members who failed doping tests and as a result Ma was fired ... only to resurface again in 2001 with his third generation "Army". 

Ma in action

His athletes, representing the Liaoning province monopolised the women's middle and long distance gold medals at the 9th Chinese National Games (and this time a male athlete of Ma, Gong Ke, won the 10000 m and the Marathon). Ma retired at the end of 2004. He sort of planned a come-back for the 2008 Games but it did not pan out and Ma definitely retired in 2007. (In the 10th Chinese National games of 2005, the only gold medal of Ma's Liaoning province was in men's decathlon! Sic transit gloria mundi).

The controversy concerning Ma is not a recent one. In 1998 a report appeared in some magazine (unfortunately partly censored) alleging that Ma was mistreating his athletes, abusing them verbally and sometimes even physically. There was also the question of him pocketing the sports bonuses. However in 2014 a book was published in China on the basis of the 1998 report which includes the previously censored doping allegations. The journalist Zhao Yu included this time a letter from 1995 signed by 10 members of Ma's Army: Wang Junxia, Ma Ningning, Wang Yuan, Lu Ou, Wang Xiaoxia, Zhang Linli, Liu Li, Lu Yi, Liu Dong and Zhang Lirong. 

The letter that spurred the recent kerfuffle

(A word of caution is in order here. To date the authenticity of the letter has not yet been established). The important element of the letter is that the athletes claim to have been doped by their coach. They say explicitly that "For many years, Ma forced us to take a large dose of illegal drugs. It was true". Wang Junxia, despite having at the time signed the letter, denies having used prohibited substances (but on the other hand among all Ma's ex-athletes she is the only one risking to lose a still standing world record).

The IAAF has reacted to the news by asking the Chinese Athletics association to look into the matter and verify whether the letter is genuine. If this turned out to be the case then quite a few world records would disappear from the official lists. In facts the rules on this point are clear:

"If an athlete has admitted that, at some time prior to achieving a World Record, he had used or taken advantage of a substance or technique prohibited at that time, then, subject to the advice of the Medical and Anti-Doping Commission, such Record will not continue to be regarded as a World Record by the IAAF."

Which brings me to the point I am elaborating in the posts of this blog. It is high time for a tabula rasa of records. It is now clear to everybody that the women's shot put and discus throw records are too good to be true. The same is true also for Wang's 10 km record. Why not decide that world records will be homologated only if realised after a day to be fixed so as to be sure that controls for doping have been efficient? In my post  I proposed a tongue-in-cheek date of 2010. A more realistic proposal would be a date around 2000. And while we are at it, just decide that if anybody is banned for anabolics he will not be eligible for a world record, ever. On the other hand we may just as well decide that we do not care about doping anymore and athletes who have reached majority are free to do as they wish. Frankly, I do not know which is the two solutions is better. But one thing is perfectly clear: the current world records are sullied by doping suspicions and the recent revelations concerning Ma's Army are adding grist to the mill.

01 April, 2016

A so-so championship

It was something one should have expected: 2016 being an olympic year most athletes do not focus on the indoor championships. Take for instance Ashton Eaton. Two years ago he "grazed" the world record with a 6632 performance. This year we had to contend with "just" 6470 points. (Of course, one could counter-argue that two years before that, in 2012, an olympic year, he did establish a world record with 6645 points at the World's indoor. However at that time Eaton was not yet the "number one" decathlete in the world and he had to make a name for himself). In fact my theory is that Eaton participated at these championships essentially to be close to his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton who was vying for her first global title.

This is not going to be a detailed report on the championships. I will just write about things that I found interesting and talk about athletes that I like to follow. So, let us start with the two greek bronze medals. Katerina Stefanidi proved once more that she has to be reckoned with at Rio. 

Voula Papachristou (why on earth is she writing her name Papahristou), coming back from maternity, obtained the best result of her senior career in the triple jump, an event won by the sensational newcomer Yulimar Rojas from Venezuela. Just like Caterine Ibargüen she is a former high jumper. (I remember that C. Olsson was also a 2.28 m high-jumper, so it would be worth finding out if there are more ex-high-jumpers among the elite of triple jump).

Asafa Powell managed once more to disappoint his admirers. After registering the 5th all-time performance in the heats and semi-final of the 60 m he managed to lose a race that he should have won with flying colours. The women's race was much more balanced. Barbara Pierre had the same performance on the 60 m as Dafne Schippers this winter and her winning the race was not a surprise. In fact I believe that both Schippers and Elaine Thompson (the 200 m silver medalist in last year's Worlds) used the winter season in order to improve their basic speed. I do not know what are the plans of Schippers for this year's European Championships which will be held in the Netherlands, but, given her class, she may treat them as another meeting, perhaps concentrating on just one race. 

I was also glad to see Marie-Josée Ta Lou making the final of the women's 60 m (but then she managed one of the worse starts I have ever seen). Ta Lou and her compatriot Murielle Ahouré are two sprinters I am rooting for and I expect them to be in great shape in Rio, this summer.

I found most men's track events uninteresting with the exception of the 60 m hurdles. Omar McLeod, last year's finalist in the World's and a sub-13 hurdler, won the race in perfect style with, as is now customary for him, his crucifix in his mouth.

Mutaz Barshim was a minor disappointment finishing 4th in men's high jump with a meagre 2.29 m. Renaud Lavillenie managed to jump to the top of the podium after a four year hiatus.  With a 6.02 m performance he dominated the event and showed that he is ready to defend his olympic title at Rio. The minor deceptions in pole vault were the reigning outdoor and indoor world champions Barber and Filippidis who finished 4th and 7th respectively. Tomas Walsh won the men's shot put with an impressive 21.78 m. Five of his six throws were better than the best throw of the silver medalist. In this event a minor disappointment was the 9th place of the other "kiwi" Jacko Gill. At least it seems that his injuries are things of the past and he could do better in Rio.

The one thing I did not understand was why did the IAAF accept 7 teams for the men's 4x400 m obliging the athletes to run a qualifying race in order just to eliminate one team. It would have been so much better to qualify just the best 6 teams even if that would have meant deciding between two teams with equal best performance. Be that as it may, the final was a most spectacular race with Belgium being the unlucky one since the 3rd runner dropped the baton and condemned his team to the last place. 

I was glad to see that Kabange Mupopo from Zambia pursues her career in athletics (she was a football player initially). In Portland she was eliminated in the semis despite having run the 5th best time. Mupopo, a 2014 African vice-champion, is an athlete that I follow closely. Her boyish haircut gives her a rather masculine appearance and some people wonder whether this is another Semenya case. Having watched her interviews it is my conviction that this is not true. While Semenya has a 100 % masculine attitude in her voice and gestures, Mupopo is perfectly girlie. (And if anybody was wondering what are the news on the Semenya front, the rumours are that she is preparing for a 400-800 m double for Rio).

The women's 3000 m was a superb race signalling the come-back of Meseret Defar. But of course even such a great athlete as Defar could not do anything when confronted with the hurricane Genzebe Dibaba. 

Nia Ali managed to retain her title over 60 m hurdles, beating the 2013 world champion over 100 m hurdles Brianna Rollins, just 9 months after giving birth to a boy. Once more she proved that she knows how to be present at the right moment. 

I was really hoping that Ivana Spanovic would this time win her first global title and with a jump at 7.07 m she came very close. Unfortunately for her Britney Reese managed once more to get one great valid jump at 7.22 m just when it counted, redeeming her defeat in last year's outdoor World's. Long jump at Rio will be a most interesting event (and the same applies to the triple jump as well, to say nothing of the pole vault where I expect the two greek athletes to shine).

Though she could manage only a bronze medal Valerie Adams is back. At 19 m she is still vulnerable but if she manages to add the one extra metre to her performance she could be on track for a third olympic gold at Rio.

I would like to finish this post with a superb photo of the pentathlon participants celebrating together the end of their multi-event with Brianne Theisen-Eaton and the two Ukrainian medalists in the centre.

I am particularly happy to see Barbara Nwaba back on track. She was the heptathlete who fell at the 100 m hurdles at last year's world championships and who, despite having no hope for a decent classification, hang on and completed her heptathlon. She finished 4th at Portland but, had she jumped close to her personal record at long jump, she could have managed to grab the bronze medal.

All in all the 2016 World Indoor Championships were far from being unforgettable. The next major appointment are the European Championships to be held at the beginning of July. Some athletes may decide just to ignore them and focus on the Rio Olympics taking place one month later. For others it will be the culminating point of a season if they are sure not to make it to their country's olympic team. In any case I expect to follow them and most probably provide an idiosyncratic report just as the present one.