Reports of Chinese runner's letter haunt sport with closet already full of doping skeletons

Reports out of China saying that its former running sensation, Olympic champion Wang Junxia, had written a letter 21 years ago saying her coach forced her to dope brought me back to the future – and present.

Which is to say, if the letter is proved believable, that nothing seems to have changed in track and field, as the doping busts in the past few years of Kenyan marathon champion Rita Jeptoo and Russian marathon champion Liliya Shobukhova and the international federation’s Russia-centered doping corruption scandal make clear.

What the Wang revelation recalled to me specifically was a telephone conversation I had with U.S. runner Lynn Jennings Sept. 8, 1993, the day the Chinese runner had set a world record in the 10,000 meters (29 minutes, 31.78 seconds) so stunning it broke the old mark by 42 seconds and still stands today.

In fact, no one has come within 22 seconds of Wang’s time since.

I was the person from whom Jennings, the 1992 Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000, learned about Wang’s time, the first world record in track set by a Chinese woman.

Jennings was distraught.  She almost immediately began to cry, tears that reflected a feeling her life’s work to that point had been unfairly rendered meaningless.

"Something is wrong, and it seems tragic for the sport," Jennings said.  "It all seems polluted to me now. It is sordid and awful. . . "My sport has been tainted. It saps the joy from it."

Within five days, that apparent taint had grown, as Wang set another world record that still stands, in the 3,000 meters, and her teammate, Qu Yunxia set the 1,500 mark that stood until Ethiopia's Genzebe Dibaba broke it last July.

All three runners were part of a training group known as Ma’s Army, named for authoritarian coach Ma Junren, who said the only unusual substances his athletes used were elixirs made of turtle blood and caterpillar fungus.

In a little less than a month of 1993, beginning with the August World Championships and ending with the September Chinese National Games, Ma’s foot soldiers completely revised the history of their sport, leaving records and doubts that have endured for years.

During that span, they set four world records and won three world titles.  In the 3,000 meters at the National Games, five Chinese broke the nine-year-old world record during the preliminaries.  Wang alone ran faster than the world records that stood before the National Games four times in three events in six days.

"They destroyed any chance of any female human breaking those records in the next 100 years," U.S. runner PattiSue Plumer told me a few days before the start of the 1995 World Championships.

None of the record setters would compete at those 1995 worlds.  The Army disbanded after a mutiny against Ma in January 1995.

Wang, who led the mutiny, went on to train elsewhere for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where she won the 5,000 meters and finished second in the 10,000 with times that were good but far from stupefying.  She said in Atlanta, which would be her last recorded competition, that injuries had kept her from the 1995 worlds.

Ma assembled a new training group that brought more problems, leading China to drop several of his runners from its 2000 Olympic team for use of EPO.

Now, like a ghost from the past, a letter reportedly written by Wang and signed by nine other athletes has come back in Chinese media reports to haunt a sport already in need of an exorcism.   Some think that should include erasing all the current world records and starting over at a time when doping controls are purportedly more serious and scientifically sophisticated.

The suspect records are not only those set by the Chinese but several others from the 1980s.

Those include the late U.S. sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner’s marks in the 100 and 200; East German Marita Koch’s 400 record; the women’s records in the high jump, long jump, shotput and discus; and the men’s records in the shot, discus and hammer.

Image of a letter reportedly giving evidence of doping by Chinese runners in the 1990s.  (TencentSports.QQ.Com)

Image of a letter reportedly giving evidence of doping by Chinese runners in the 1990s.  (TencentSports.QQ.Com)

Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s 1988 heptathlon record, 259 points higher than any other woman has scored since then, also has raised eyebrows.

None of the record-setters from that era – or from the brief era of Chinese women's dominance of several distances in the 1990s - ever failed drug tests. There never has been doping evidence against any of them until the mysterious letter involving Wang, an IAAF Hall of Fame member who has previously denied doping.

"We are humans, not animals," said the letter, according to the South China Morning Post.  "For many years, (Junren) forced us to take a large dose of illegal drugs. It was true."

The Morning Post's account of the letter, first reported and published by Chinese web portal Tencent Sports, said Wang wrote about how the women on the team tried to avoid the state-run doping regime by quietly throwing away pills forced on them.  But she said the coach would personally inject the drugs into his athletes.

The letter reportedly was sent to a Chinese journalist in 1995.  Why it suddenly came to light now is unclear.  There has so far been no comment from Wang.  Could it all be a hoax?

The international federation (IAAF) said it is working on finding out whether the letter is real and credible before it considers stripping any records or medals from the Chinese.

That may not be easy in a sport where credibility already is in very short supply.