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.


  1. Li Xuemei was coached by Liu Hong in the late eighties and by Zhang Rongwei from 1994 (he was also the mentor of 1994 Asian Games 100m champion Liu Xiaomei).

    1. Thanks a million Tithib.
      Pointing out such, not very well-known, details is really priceless.