The rest of us were left to ponder how on earth such an incident-packed affair could have occupied only 30min 49.31sec, giving the winner, 18-year-old Wang Junxia, the second fastest time in history.
Just as their team-mates had prepared for the 3,000m last Monday, the Chinese girls spent the 90 minutes before the race running in strict-tempo formation on the warm-up track. When Wang and her team-mate Zhong Huandi, 26, jumped into the lead on the first lap, their intentions were plain. Older heads, such as the favourite, Elana Meyer of South Africa, and Lynn Jennings of the United States, sat back to await developments, but Sally Barsosio, the Kenyan teenager, had other ideas. A graceful lope could hardly disguise the ruthlessness with which she began using her elbows on both Chinese girls and then, twice in two laps, on Meyer, who first spoke sharply to her and then watched as an official administered a warning.
When Meyer was assaulted again, though, with 16 of the 25 laps to go, the Olympic silver medallist could take no more and pulled off the track at the end of the back straight.
The Portuguese pair of Albertina Dias and Conceicao Ferreira then took up the struggle of getting by Barsosio and on to the heels of the Chinese, but with no better luck. Approaching the end of the 13th lap there was an amazing pitched battle when, after tangling with Dias, Barsosio went stumbling across the track, falling from fourth to ninth, and then shot across four lanes to first place - all in the space of 100 metres.
The Chinese waited until the 18th lap before unleashing Wang on the final drive. A strong kick carried her home more than 120 metres ahead of Zhong, who had got the measure of the combative Kenyan. Barsosio was soon to find that that bronze medal for which she had fought so hard had been given instead to her compatriot, Tecla Lorupe, who finished fourth on the track. Later that evening, however, under pressure from a Kenyan appeal, the judges confessed to having made a mistake and gave Barsosio her medal back.
By the time the runners arrived in the changing area, Meyer was long gone. 'I couldn't run,' she had told reporters before collapsing in tears in the arms of her husband. 'I was bumped the whole time by the Kenyan.'
Barsosio was the main culprit in this fascinating mess of a race, but the sheer intransigence of the Chinese front-running must have played its part, and contributed to the ill humour with which Wang and Zhong were received by the knowledgable German crowd.
Five days earlier, after finishing fourth in a 3,000m final she was expecting to win, the Irish runner Sonia O'Sullivan had described the experience of running against Qu Yunxia, Zhang Linli and Zhang Lirong as 'like trying to compete against a basketball team.' Once the gun went, they ran as a flying wedge, talking to each other throughout and, according to one member of the British team, listening for instructions shouted by their coach from a trackside grandstand seat. This, like touchline coaching in football, is a proscribed activity, and the two Zhangs afterwards denied that it had taken place.
All of these Chinese girls, boyish in build and clearly not encouraged to display emotion, are students at the academy of long-distance running supervised by Ma Zunren, a coach in his fifties who has no formal background but insists that his protegees undertake a training routine of formidable proportions. Each day the girls run a marathon distance at Ma's school, which is in Liaoning province, 1,000 miles north of Peking. Two months before a major championship meeting they move to an altitude-training camp in the mountains of Quinghai province, near the Tibetan border.
The Chinese flatly deny persistent rumours of the presence of East German coaches in their country, although following the reunification of Germany, it was assumed that the GDR's coaches and drug chemists would head straight for the only large communist country still interested in an all-conquering state-sponsored athletics programme. The suspicions have not been quieted by the news that half a dozen Chinese athletes have tested positively for drugs in random tests this year. In a command society, it seems unlikely that individual athletes would be able to get hold of performance-enhancing drugs on their own initiative, as opposed to receiving them under an official scheme.
It is tempting to examine the complexions of these Chinese girls in search of acne, one of the common side-effects of steroid use. Let us merely record that Qu Yungxia and Xhang Lirong, first and third in the 3,000m, at least provide evidence of the inability of Clearasil's salesmen to penetrate the North China market.
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