A YEAR ago, Ma Junren was the toast of China: His team of women distance runners - known as ``Ma's Family Army'' - shattered world track records and left the international sports world agog at their endurance and speed. Coach Ma's innovative methods of long practice mileage and unconventional nutrition and recovery techniques were the most sought-after blueprint in athletics.
But this year has been a troubled one for Ma. The temperamental, flamboyant coach and his runners have fallen out of the sports limelight, mysteriously failing to run in most world competitions, reportedly to avoid the shadow of suspected drug use.
Ma's reputation has also been tarnished by legal and personal disputes. He is at the center of a bitter corporate battle over his endorsements of competing medicinal tonics that he claims are a key to his team's success. He also is squabbling publicly with one of his former runners who left the team in protest.
This week, Ma is trying for a comeback. His celebrated racers are returning to international competition as part of a Chinese sports juggernaut at the 12th Asian Games in Hiroshima. With five days of competition left, China was overwhelming its competition, winning 188 medals - including a sweep of all 15 women's swimming events - to 136 for Japan and 106 for South Korea.
China's spectacular success has been clouded by a diplomatic row with Japan and Taiwan over the attendance of a Taipei official at the competition and renewed charges of illegal drug use by Chinese athletes.
In the run-up to the Asian Games, a mini-Olympics featuring Asia's best athletes, China vehemently denounced Japan and Taiwan for the planned attendance of Taiwan's vice-premier, Hsu Li-teh.
INCREASINGLY worried about Taiwan's growing international profile, Beijing considers a Taiwanese presence a diplomatic slight to its supremacy. Despite close investment and trade ties between the two, China and Taiwan remain locked in their decades-old political rivalry.
Chinese supremacy of the competition is also stirring new controversy over the use of illicit drugs. After Chinese swimmers and divers plunged into the limelight at the World Swimming Championships in Rome last month, some Western coaches charged that the athletes' performances were drug enhanced.
At the Asian Games, participating nations have gone on the offensive to defend China and blame the allegations on exaggeration by the Western press. International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch joined in with a strong defense of Chinese athletes.
``We are innocent. I repeat: We are innocent,'' said Chinese weightlifting coach Jiang Tao, who attributed his athletes' success to China's large population and strong coaching.
Since his runners electrified the sports world a year ago, Ma has been under a torrent of suspicion. On Sept. 27, China's women runners underwent surprise drug tests conducted by the International Amateur Athletic Federation. The tests were part of a worldwide random drug testing of athletes outside competitions. The results were negative for drug use.
Ma's coaching regimen includes practice runs of up to 30 miles daily, the use of electric and hot massages as well as acupuncture after a practice, and daily doses of turtle blood and caterpillar fungus, traditional Chinese medicines.
These exotic elixirs, not banned drugs, are responsible for the racers' tremendous speed and endurance, the coach has said at press conferences. Ma has announced plans to take his potions, now marketed in China, international by promoting them at the Asian Games.
But Ma's business forays dragged him into a widely publicized $250,000 lawsuit after the coach went on national television touting the potions of two competing Chinese companies. The litigation has spilled over into the Chinese press in an unusually nasty exchange of letters between the parties.
In one testy letter to the editor, Ma, who was paid $25,000 for each endorsement, claimed he was cheated by one of the companies and signed a contract with the competitor because he wasn't paid on time. In a full-page response published in the official Workers Daily, the company accused Ma of lying and insisted he can't ignore the legal contract ``just because you're famous.''
``There is a lot of tension between Ma and the media. His aim is just to get more money,'' said a spokesman for the Like Pharmaceutical Company, which filed the lawsuit. Ma refused to be interviewed.
Ma has also been attacked in recent newspaper articles by Liou Dong, one of his former star athletes. Ms. Liou said she left Ma's team in a disagreement over racing strategy and, contrary to his wishes, had a boyfriend and insisted on wearing her hair long.
Although her family was hard-pressed for money, Ma withheld her salary and prevented her from transferring to another team. ``The most difficult thing for me now is that my family has no money,'' Liou was quoted as saying by Beijing Youth Daily newspaper. ``He has put all the blame for this [disagreement] on me. This is unfair.''