In 1993, the Chinese women’s track team ran crazy; they set insane world records, times so fast, over such a range of distances with almost no recovery in between that, well, they were widely believed to be dirty. The women themselves admitted doping in 1995, but we’re just seeing the evidence now. The South China Morning Post reports on a 21-year-old letter allegedly written by the members of that team, telling how the women were forced to take “large doses of illegal drugs over the years.”
Written in 1995 by 10 members of the Chinese distance running team—including multiple world record holder Wang Junxia—to Chinese journalist Zhao Yu, the letter tells how their coach, chain-smoking Ma Junren, encouraged them to take pills, and if they refused, he personally injected them with drugs. “We are humans, not animals,” read the letter. “For many years, [he] forced us to take a large dose of illegal drugs. It was true.”
According to CNN, the journalist Zhao Yu included the women’s allegations in the form of their letters and diaries in his 1997 book “Revealing the Secrets of Ma’s Army,” but those portions were deleted, and then reinstated when the book was published again last year. It’s not clear why the women didn’t bring their revelations to other media outlets, or why Zhao Yu didn’t bring the women’s allegations to other authorities.
The letter was posted online this week by Chinese sports site Tencent Sports, and reported by China Central Television (CCTV) and other Chinese media.
The peasant women of Ma’s Army, as the runners were called, threw down some unbelievable shit: At the time, a 1,500-meter world record, the top six 3,000 meters performances of all time, a world record 5000-meters, and the top 10,000 meter of all time, all achieved over the course of five days at the 1993 National Games of China, most of those still standing 22 years later.
As if that wasn’t enough, previous to that Burning Man of track, in April 1993, Wang Junxia posted a world-leading 2:24 marathon, and in October 1993, four Chinese women, led by Junxia, swept the World Marathon Cup.
The crazy-fast times, the matter of hours between record-breaking performances, and the outrageous range of distances the women completely dominated stretched the credibility of everyone in the track world (except, ironically, the IAAF), but the coach and the runners insisted their success was the result of hard work and turtle blood.
If you go six minutes into Chinese media outlet SJNA’s interview below with then-1,500 meter world record holder Qu Yunxia, you’ll see awesome 90s track suits, Ma timing a workout, Ma hacking the head off a turtle, and Ma’s runners drinking the blood that pours out of the unfortunate turtle’s neck. Gross, but keep watching and at 6:45 you’ll see another hallmark of Ma’s training program—physical abuse. Following the runners on a motorcycle, the coach decided one of them wasn’t running fast enough. He grabs her jersey, dragging her to the ground. It gives a pretty good idea of the athlete-coach dynamic. The video was uploaded in 2011, but the video shows athletes who were part of the 1993 team. YouTube is filled with Chinese language news reports about the colorful Ma and his nearly robotic runners.
To further my understanding, I asked my friend, Yu-Ju Chien, who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, to give me a summary of the interview. Here’s her synopsis:
He [Ma Junren] felt aggrieved and insulted regarding the drug accusations. The video attempts to answer why the relationships between the runners and Ma broke right after the incident [accusations of drug use in 1993]. Some believed that Ma was taking too much share of award money from the girls, and others think that the girls were ungrateful. Wang [Junxia] made two contradictory statements in two interviews which were only half a year apart. In the first interview right after the record was made, Wang thanked her coach for making her achievement possible. Six months later, she said that the training was strict, and the athletes were tired and their feet were very soar which made movement during sleep unbearable.
They often cried in private, but they did not dare to let the coach know. They thought about quitting many many times, because the sport was too torturous. Several years later, Wang recalled her experienced with Ma. She said that there was one time she was very discouraged and decided to quit, so she went to Ma’s office to tell him. Ma threatened her saying if she quit, she would have no connections, no money, no rights to register for marriage, and no rights to register her children. She said that she didn’t care. Their discussion was overheard by other team members. and later at night, several other girls came to her room saying they wished to leave the team with her. That’s why Ma considered that Wang and the other girls betrayed him. In the last piece of the interview, she said that she regretted not being respectful to Ma when she left. She thought that the tough training comes with the career she chose, so in some ways, she is still thankful to Ma for training her at the very beginning.
The Chinese women continued to put up amazing performances in the 1996 Olympics and the 1997 World Championships, though Wang Junxia and some of the other women on the 1993 team left Ma in 1995 to train under a different Chinese coach. Ma was fired by Chinese officials when six of his athletes failed drug tests prior to the 2000 Olympics. After 1997, the Chinese women have never come close to the times they posted during Ma’s reign. The Chinese women’s 1500-meter and 5000-meter records, thought to be untouchable, have been recently broken by Ethiopians, where, I’m perplexed to know, there is almost zero out-of-competition drug testing. Ma is now a dog breeder. Neither Ma nor Wang have commented on the recently surfaced doping allegations.
It’s a relief to finally have some evidence that what everyone thought was dirty, indeed was dirty. But the response by some media and the IAAF has been unsettling. Athletics Weekly, a respected British publication, headlined their article about the revelations, “Chinese world record-holder Wang Junxia implicated in state-sponsored doping,” seeming to blame the athlete. From what we know, the athletes were forced to dope against their will, and they tried to expose the abuse in 1995, putting their medals, reputations, and quite possibly their personal safety in peril, yet they are cast as the wrongdoers. Puzzlingly, there has been little condemnation of the brutal coach or the corrupt system responsible for human rights abuses, cheating and coverup of the whole operation.
Displaying hallmark pathology, the IAAF has warned not to be too hasty about accepting the veracity of the athletes’ letter. To get to the truth of it, the IAAF issued this statement: “The CCTV story confirms that the existence of the letter allegedly written to the journalist only became known yesterday. Therefore the IAAF’s first action must be to verify that the letter is genuine. In this respect, the IAAF has asked the Chinese Athletics Association to assist it in that process.”
No kidding. The IAAF is going to ask the Chinese Athletics Association, known for their openness, who no doubt had a hand in suppressing that letter for 22 years—whether the letter that detailed their system of forced doping is for real. The IAAF is going to ask the Chinese if they engaged in horrific state-sponsored doping.
I...I....I don’t know what to say.
photo credit: Getty Images