Feature: Top Question for Games: How Golden Are Ma's Army's Golds?

As the maverick Chinese coach Ma Junren storms back to the track, with his proteges pocketing one after another gold in middle- and long-distance running events at the ongoing 9th National Games, the media covering the sports meet are asking the question of questions: How golden are their golds?

The Liaoning track team under the guidance of Ma Junren, known as Ma's Army, has put the Chinese athletics on the world map by shattering a string of records in the women's 1,500, 3,000 and 10,000 meters in the 1993 Stuttgart world championships.

They continued to sweep away a series of world records at the following Chinese Seventh National Games, but ever since they began to fall from the peak.

Ma's runners collected a haul of five golds in the 1997 Eighth National Games, but have been short of a world record-shattering spree.

So far Ma's Army has bagged five golds at the current Ninth National Games, but again without any performance of upsetting a record.

Outside the field, the exposed rifts with his former proteges in the mid-1990s have been a big factor in the changed fortune of Ma's Army.

The ups and downs of the runners, however, did not blunt the interest of the media at all.

Shift of media focus
Ma has mesmerized the media for his outspoken comments on the embattled Chinese athletics, unorthodox ideas and seemingly golden touch to make world champions and world record-holders out of a group of rustic peasant girls.

Anything related to the storied coach may excite the news-thirsty and Ma-crazy reporters.

"Without stories about Ma's Army, how could I report to my boss? " said one reporter covering the national games here.

At the news of Ma's arrival in Guangzhou, center host city of the games, an army of reporters left no stones unturned to know which hotel he is staying. For every race Ma's army is to contest, reporters will widen their radar-like eyes and ears around the venue to search Ma and follow his movements.

"A competition without Ma will be colorless," said Fan Chunsheng, another reporter covering the games.

If in the past the media were tracing Ma for his army's capacity to shatter more records, today they are more concerned about how the squad could fully recover from a series of sagas that sapped the contingent greatly.

Heavy blows
As China is still a poor cousin of the world athletics, Ma's Army fought its way into the limelight in the Stuttgart worlds, which made them the darling of the domestic media.

But after a banner year in 1993, fall-outs over prizemoney with his proteges sapped Ma's army greatly as world champion Liu Dong and world record-holder Wang Junxia led a walkout from Ma's training camp.

Another blow came from a controversial best-seller titled "Inside Stories of Ma's Army," which revealed in details Ma's patriarchy-style coaching, adding salt on the wound of the baffled Ma's army.

About two months from the Sydney Olympics in 2000, two members of Ma's Army tested positive and received two-year suspense ending on July 11 next year. The doping scandal shut the whole of Ma's Army out of the Sydney Olympics.

Just before the track and field events began last Sunday at the current games, another runner Lan Lixin was disqualified after her blood test returned abnormal result, further marring the fame of Ma's Army.

No high expectations
In the present Ma's army, Dong Yanmei, who broke world record in the previous national games four years ago, is the most shining and the most likely, if not completely, to fill the void left by the Atlanta Olympic gold medalist Wang Junxia.

But the 22-year-old Dong still has to prove her strength in the world arena as she finished only fourth in women's 5,000-meter race at the Edmonton World Championships this year. In the 21st Summer Universiade in Beijing last August, she won the title of the event but her time could only place her at 20th at the Edmonton worlds.

Dong won the women's 10,000-meter on Monday at the ninth national games with a time of 31:43.59, more than two minutes short of the world record of 29:31.78.

Although Ma's two other runners Lin Na and Gong Ke took the women's 1,500 meters and men's 10,000m races, in 4:7.06 and 28:59.21, neither poses a threat to the world records. Hence the media challenges to the quality of their golds.

"I do not think the Chinese women long distance runners are able to shock the world again," said Ma. "Don't expect too much from Ma's Army."

Ma's Army has begun to show its strength in men's middle- and long-distance events, but there is still a long way to catch the glory that Ma's women proteges have attained.

Sun Ripeng, title holder of the last two national games, ended up empty-handed in the men's 3,000 meters steeplechase of the games here, finishing the last in the heat of the event where he was the first Chinese to win an Asian title.

"How could I face coach Ma? " he kept asking himself after the early and unexpected exit.

Ma seemed to be quite nostalgic of the past when his big three runners including Wang Junxia, Qu Yunxia and Liu Dong led his army to the climax.

"Because nowadays nobody is willing to endure as much hardships as Wang, Qu and Liu did," he complained. "Also, I don't think they can easily find another coach as smart as I am."

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