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Record-breaking athletes desert gruelling regime of Ma's Army

FROM the start, Ma Junren's recipe for turning Chinese peasant girls into world record-breaking runners was distinctive. He took teenagers from his home province of Liaoning, trained them to run marathons every day at high altitude, fed them exoti c tonics of turtle's blood and caterpillar fungus, imposed a military-style regime that outlawed long hair and boyfriends, and had 11 athletes' appendices removed for "toxicological problems".

His methods certainly brought results. At the August 1993 World Athletics Championships in Stuttgart his runners swept the middle- and long-distance medals, and in China's National Games the following month they stunned the athletics world with new records.

Since then, the team has been dogged by mystery and rumour. Scheduled international appearances have been cancelled, none of the record times has come near to being repeated, Mr Ma has become embroiled in legal wrangles over business deals concerning his"tonics" and speculation of growing dissent between the coach and his team has been rife.

Last week, it emerged that reports of near mutiny by the so-called "Ma Family Army" were accurate. Sixteen athletes walked out of his training headquarters in Dalian, Liaoning, in December. On Thursday, Mr Ma's star runner, Wang Junxia, told Reuters newsagency: "We couldn't take it any longer. We had no freedom. We were on the brink of going crazy. The pressure was too intense." Ms Wang, 21, who knocked 42 seconds off the 10,000 metre record to run 29 minutes 31.78 seconds in September 1993, said the training had left her ill: "My lungs have not been well. But when I told [Ma] my lungs were in pain, he made me train even harder. He never let me rest. My condition kept getting worse."

Chinese officials are reluctant to discuss what has been going on, but friction within the camp appears to have been compounded by Mr Ma's obsession with money. Ms Wang complained about his tendency to hold on to prizes, including three Mercedes won in Stuttgart.

Liaoning sports officials insist that the team will not be disbanded, but are looking for a "replacement" coach while Mr Ma receives treatment for medical problems including possible throat cancer. To add to the drama, Mr Ma and his wife are currently inhospital with injuries suffered in a car crash two weeks ago. For China, still reeling from positive drugs tests on 11 athletes at the recent Asian Games in Hiroshima, the crisis could not have come at a worse time.

The danger signs appeared early on. Soon after the 1993 records, the 1,500 metre champion at Stuttgart, Liu Dong, left the "Ma Family Army". Mr Ma publicly castigated her for refusing to cut her hair and for having a boyfriend. Ms Liu said Mr Ma was furious because she had departed from his race strategy and won the 800 metre final at the 1993 National Games rather than merely acting as pace-maker. She was also criticised for setting too fast a pace in Qu Yunxia's record-breaking 1,500metre run. In fact, after the race Ms Qu, who broke the record by two seconds, publicly thanked Ms Liu.

During 1994, many of the athletes' appearances were cancelled. Rumours circulated that the runners were injured or were avoiding drugs tests. The truth was more outlandish. At the Asian Games last October, Mr Ma said the squad's disappearance from the international circuit had been due to 11 team members having appendectomies on the same day. When the runners did eventually appear, they won their races but the times were unimpressive.

According to the official Peking Youth Daily, on the night of 11 December, Wang Junxia and other team athletes at the Ma training headquarters in Dalian went to Mr Ma's office asking for a talk. "Ma started by reprimanding them," said the newspaper. By 1

am, neither side could endure "such a senseless see-saw battle" and the women left in tears. Ms Wang and one group packed their bags and left in a van. Other runners moved into a hotel. Only Qu Yunxia and two junior runners stayed on. On 13 December, many athletes' parents said they would take their children home rather than let them return to Mr Ma's camp.

The runners have now been taken under the wing of the Liaoning Provincial Sports Commission. Gu Jinchi, Liaoning Communist Party secretary, said: "Ma's army is not a private asset. It belongs to the party, the province and the country. We should all carefor and love it."

There has been some talk of winter training, but athlete Wang Junxia said: "We can't plan for the future. Too many things remain unsettled." It may be a long time before those incredible record runs are ever repeated.