Ma's Army under doping siege

Ma's Army under doping siege

Athletics : A letter titled 'the smoking gun' has put a question mark over the feats of some of China's famous runners

Ma's Army under doping siege

Lunar New Year blessings in red and gold at the entrance to the Chinese Athletics Association wish visitors “Glorious Business Improving Year by Year” and “Splendid Future Reaching Up and Up.”

Yet in spite of the festive cheer and a warming winter sun, the atmosphere was chilly on Tuesday in the association’s building on stadium road in south Beijing, near the National Olympic Training Center’s Sports Medicine Hospital and the headquarters of the China General Administration of Sports, the epicenter of this sporting superpower.

Two employees warily eyed a reporter asking about allegations in the Chinese news media that female track athletes who burst onto the global scene in the early 1990s, setting world records, were in fact heavily doped by their trainer, Ma Junren.

The smoking gun: a letter purportedly written by the women in 1995 that an investigative reporter, Zhao Yu, said they gave him at the time. The letter was first published in April 2014, in a book of Zhao’s investigative works, but drew attention only when, a website owned by Tencent, reprinted it this month. Zhao declined to be interviewed for this article.

“The past has truly been a tale of blood and tears,” read the letter, said to have been written by the runner Wang Junxia and signed by her and nine other members of Ma’s Army, as the women were known, a reference to their triumphs and to Ma’s toughness. “What we have told you about how Coach Ma verbally and physically abused us for years is true. It is also true that he tricked and forced us into using large quantities of banned drugs for years,” the letter said.

The women wanted to stop taking the drugs they believed were altering their bodies and voices.  They did not specify the drugs involved. The letter’s publication has reignited a two-decade-old scandal that many here had forgotten and others would like to forget. China insists that its sporting standards today are second to none and that doping is forbidden, though suspicions linger, most recently in swimming.

But there is one major problem: Wang’s world records for 3,000 meters and 10,000 meters, set in 1993 at the National Games in Beijing, still stands. They could be nixed if the allegations prove true, said Yannis Nikolaou, a spokesman for the International Association of Athletics Federations. Neither Wang nor Ma responded to requests for comment. Attempts to contact the other purported signers of the letter, all retired from sports, were unsuccessful.

“We have asked from the Chinese Athletics Association, which is our member federation, to verify that the letter which was published after 20 years is genuine,” Nikolaou wrote in an email.

“As you probably know well, the story came out in the media during the Chinese New Year, the biggest holiday in China, and therefore it was normal to have a delay in the beginning of the process from C.A.A.,” Nikolaou wrote. “We are still waiting to hear back.” In Beijing, the two association employees said: “Our leaders are all traveling.” They could not comment. “We have to investigate first and then we will announce our findings,” one said. “No, I can’t say when that will be.” It happened long ago, she said, and “the people concerned are hard to find.”

A photograph on the wall showed Wang draped in the Chinese flag after winning at the 1996 Olympics, after she ditched Ma.

Half a dozen people on Stadium Road declined to discuss the allegations, though most said they were aware of the scandal, which has drawn much comment online.

One middle-aged man, carrying a backpack with the five Olympic rings emblazoned on it, said that while doping was wrong, the case was complicated.

“Look at Maradona,” said the man, who asked that his name not be used. “He used drugs when he was a footballer, like cocaine. Shall we take away his medals?”

Diego Maradona, the former Argentine football player, was suspended from playing in 1991 for 15 months after he tested positive for cocaine. “I think those women were very brave to speak out,” he continued. “They must have faced a lot of pressure not to at the time. Afterward a lot of people would have said to them, ‘Oh drop it, it’s so long ago.'”

“Still, it’s certainly wrong to dope,” he said. “I think that whatever the IAAF decides we can accept.”

The letter by Ma’s trainees

Respected Teacher Zhao Yu,

Hello. We have long heard your name, and we respect you as a great writer of integrity, who is rich in sympathy. You came to our team to investigate and research. The past has truly been a tale of blood and tears. We would like to provide you with some valuable information, offering truth to history, and letting countless upright and kind readers know the injustice we suffered, so they can appeal for us and redress our grievances.

What we have told you about how Coach Ma verbally and physically abused us for years is true. It is also true that he tricked and forced us into using large quantities of banned drugs for years. We have a heavy heart and very complicated feelings in exposing him. We are concerned that our motherland’s reputation will be harmed, and we are also concerned about “how much gold” there will be in our gold medals that were earned through blood and sweat. But Ma’s crimes have to be exposed, because we don’t want the same thing to happen to the next generation. This inhumane torture has pushed us to the verge of mental breakdown.

At the same time, we have also considered the obstacles and abuse you might encounter in revealing the truth, because we know too well what kind of a person Coach Ma is. He will use money, or multiple illicit means, to slander and harass you. We can simply say that he has a hand that reaches into heaven. But we won’t leave you fighting by yourself. In any difficulties, we will come forward to support you by all means. This is for the healthy development of the cause of sports in our motherland, and for the morality and conscience of mankind.

We represent all the teammates who have sustained abuse to express our sincerest gratitude to you! Have mercy on us! We are just children. We are humans, not machines or animals. We want to lead the lives of human beings. We have the right to be human beings. We need freedom!

Wang Yuan, Wang Junxia, Lu Yi, Liu Dong, Ma Ningning, Lu Ou, Zhang Linli, Wang Xiaoxia, Liu Li, Zhang Lirong
    March 28, 1995, Shenyang

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