Ma's happy family look set for divorce

Sixteen of China's leading women runners, led by the world 3,000 and 10,000 metres record-holder, Wang Junxia, are reported to have walked out on their coach, Ma Junren, after a dispute over prize money and excessive discipline.

A story in the Beijing Youth Daily said that only three athletes remained in Junren's training group, known as the Ma Family Army, in Liaoning Province, following a mass walk-out in mid-December.

It followed an acrimonious meeting with Ma the previous day at which several athletes were reduced to tears. One of the main issues was the destination of prize money, which Ma's athletes had accrued since they arrived at the forefront of the sport in 1993. They then dominated the women's middle-distance events at the world championships, a domination which has provoked widespread allegations of drug abuse.

Liberation Daily reported last month that Ma was driving three of the Mercedes cars won by his gold medallists in Stuttgart, and had spent £550,000 on a training centre from their total winnings of £800,000. Seven of Ma's male athletes walked out in October following a similar dispute.

There were also complaints from athletes about Ma's excesive discipline. A year ago, he sacked the 1500m world champion, Liu Dong, because she had grown her hair too long and refused to give up her boyfriend.

Ma, who threatened to leave the group last year because of the lack of financial support by the government, is going through traumatic times. Last week, he was said to have been detained in hospital with cuts and bruises when the van he was driving to his father's funeral crashed.

reports from China indicate that the general health of this chain-smoking 51-year-old is far from good, and that he is resigned to leaving his group for some time so he can receive treatment for a serious throat disorder and pancreatitis.

According to these earlier reports, his athletes were said to be very concerned at his decision, and the Liaoning Provincial Sports Commission said they had charged Wang Junxia with ensuring any new coach would receive co-operation.

Whatever the truth of these conflicting reports, the bond between Ma and his athletes appears to have broken down. As such, it is the end of an era The British Athletic Federation's management board will discuss the composition of a panel to hear Diane Modahl's appeal against a four-year ban for drug-taking tomorrow.

A BAF disciplinary hearing unanimously found the former Commonwealth 800m champion guilty three weeks ago. Modahl, who declared immediately afterwards that she would fight on to clear her name, insists: "I have never taken any banned substance."