Chinese Runners Set New Records - Raise Old Suspicions

RECORD-SHATTERING victories by two long-distance women runners in China's National Games have again raised suspicions about drug use by Chinese athletes.

On Sept. 8, international champion Wang Junxia raced to a new 10,000-meter world record of 29 minutes, 31.78 seconds, smashing the old record by 42 seconds. Four days later, Ms. Wang broke the world mark in the 3,000 meters by two seconds, in a finishing time of 8:12.19. Teammate Qu Yunxia swept to a new world record of 3:50.1 in the women's 1,500 meters, trimming more than a second off the old mark.

There was even some speculation that Wang had not run all 25 laps of the race, a suggestion that was quickly dismissed.

The stunning performances underscore the sudden rise to dominance of Chinese women long-distance runners who raced to international prominence at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, last month. Chinese women were the two top finishers in the 10,000 meters and captured the 1,500- and 3,000-meter events.

But last week's new world's records, especially that of Ms. Wang, again raised the specter that coordinated programs of drug use are behind the Chinese success. International observers increasingly suspect that Chinese athletes undergo organized drug regimens. At the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, drug charges dogged a number of Chinese athletes and forced the surrender of one medal after a positive test.

Such renewed worries are an embarrassment at a particularly sensitive time for China, which hopes to win its bid to host the 2000 Summer Olympics. Beijing, in a tight race with Sydney for the honor, has run a fierce campaign. The winner will be announced in Geneva Sept. 23.

The Chinese athletes and their coach, Ma Zunren, denied that the runners' performance was boosted by drugs and insisted they had repeatedly tested negative in drug monitoring. Ma, coach of the athletics team of Liaoning Province in northeast China, insisted that high-altitude training and a medicinal tonic (which is prepared from caterpillar fungus and does not violate international regulations) gave the athletes their edge.

China has adopted the training system used by the former Soviet Union and communist governments in Eastern Europe in which young athletes are taken from their homes to be nurtured through a special network of training schools.

The hiring of Eastern European coaches, including several known to be associated with drug programs for athletes, to train sports stars has heightened international perceptions that Chinese athletics has become tainted.

There is growing outcry for international sports organizations to tighten drug testing to detect the use of masking agents for banned drugs and to uncover previously undetectable substances. Chinese sports officials contend that drug sampling is done regularly according to international standards.

``For China's National Games, the track-and-field athletes and swimmers are tested according to the regulations of the different international sports associations,'' says Gao Daan, an official of the Institute of Scientific Research of the Chinese Sports Commission. ``China enforces tests more strictly than some Western countries.''

Still, he admits that China, which rejoined international sports competition just over a decade ago, has a concerted program to develop top athletes and become a sports force.

``We have to use special ways if we are going to get them involved in sports and have sports achievements,'' he said.

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