Marco Polo had it just about right. "In heaven there is
paradise," he reported to Kublai Khan, "and on earth there is
Hangzhou." Seven centuries later, as dawn breaks, peace still
envelops West Lake, the gemstone of Hangzhou, a provincial
capital south of Shanghai. A concrete promontory is peopled by
elderly women engrossed in tai chi chuan. Up a stairwell,
beneath a shroud of trees, a middle-aged man incants a scale,
his voice carrying over a nearby glade. Everywhere people are
practicing one of the solitary recreation arts: fishing,
cycling, stretching, shadowboxing. One man walks slowly
backward, turning over worry balls in the palms of his hands.
On the surface this scene patly conforms to the Western notion
of China as serene, inward-looking, hidebound. It's a beguiling
and seductive tableau, and a completely misleading one. There's
symbolism in that man who can't see where he's going; he may be
fingering those worry balls for good reason. Economic
liberalization under Deng Xiaoping has led to a welter of
entrepreneurial activity and loosed the untidiness of capitalism
on the Middle Kingdom. At the same time China has shed its
reputation as the sporting sick man of Asia, the nation that
sent a single athlete to the 1932 Olympics and passed up the
Games entirely from '52 through '76.
As a shopping center informally called the Great Mall of the
People goes up in Beijing less than a mile from Tiananmen
Square, change is touching virtually every aspect of Chinese
sports, often adversely. A drug scandal at the 1994 Asian Games
in Hiroshima, where seven Chinese swimmers tested positive for
anabolic steroids, threatens China's expectation of dominating
aquatic events at the Atlanta Olympics. The dictatorial methods
of Ma Junren, the coach whose "family army" of teenage women
distance runners set Beamonesque records only two years ago, so
alienated his athletes that they defected en masse. China's
medal prospects in Atlanta are still good; this is, after all, a
country where, when they tell you you're one in a million, you
know there are a thousand more just like you. But the Chinese
are discovering that there can be unintended consequences when
the government pays a bonus of as much as $10,000 for an Olympic
gold medal, when local sponsors and overseas Chinese
millionaires ply winners with sums 10 to 12 times more than
that, and when the August First soccer team, named after the
date of the founding of the People's Liberation Army, is
suddenly underwritten by Nike.
During a recent tour of China, SI journalists found evidence of
every dubious Western sporting practice: free agency,
hooliganism, bought-out contracts, cult-figure coaches, the use
of performance-enhancing drugs, and squabbles over money. Last
March in Shenyang there took place an event so commercial that
it seemed beyond the ken even of the modern West: an athletic
"trade fair" that was almost indistinguishable from a slave
market. Representatives of provincial sports commissions
distributed catalogs listing some 1,300 homegrown athletes, most
of them developed in regional sports schools. Physical
dimensions, achievements in competition and an "asking price"
were listed for each athlete. By the time the fair was over, the
sports commission of Liaoning province, the event's host, had
fared the best, placing 191 of its athletes with teams in other
provinces and pocketing the transfer fees.
Welcome to China circa 1995. Death to running dogs and all that.
But for that running boy or girl, get the best price possible.
To a people conditioned to taking cues from the Communist Party
on how to think, Ma Junren must be terribly confusing, for there
is no officially sanctioned opinion on the man whose runners
have remaindered the track and field record book. Everyone
freely chooses sides at the mention of his name. If China had a
tabloid press, this millionaire celebrity, a two-fisted smoker
with throat cancer who's part medicine man, part con man and
part guru, would be Princess Di, O.J. Simpson and Michael
Jackson rolled into one.
"I only know what I read in the newspaper," says Wei Jizhong,
the general secretary of the Chinese Olympic Committee, when the
subject of coach Ma is brought up. But Wei's demurral is coy,
for upon reading the paper you'll find Wei's and other
officials' voices everywhere, calling into question Ma's
autocratic excesses and his obsession with money, even as they
laud his runners' achievements.
Like the foot soldiers in his family army, Ma began life poor.
He went on to raise pigs and work as a prison guard--occupations
that serve him well now, cynics say. For his team he chose only
the most destitute, simple, homely peasant girls, and he forbade
them to wear their hair long or to have boyfriends. He berated
the girls and, from a rickety motorcycle with a sidecar, led
them on training runs that sometimes totaled more than a
marathon a day. To help them recover he fed them elixirs made of
turtle blood and caterpillar fungus. Then, the runners claim, he
kept (temporarily, he says) their bonuses and the
Mercedes-Benzes they won at the 1993 world championships.
Ma now lives in a three-story Spanish-style villa decorated with
Buddhist statuary and no bookcases. "He is uneducated," people
whisper. They say this with a hiss of sanctimony, for the
Mandarin creed places learning above all, and the Chinese
consider someone who has exalted the physical over the mental
unworthy, if not incapable, of achieving great prosperity. Ma
never writes anything down; the formulas for the herbal potions
with which he washes his runners' feet and for the carefully
calibrated schedule of their low- and high-altitude training are
in his head.
In China before the 1949 revolution men bound the feet of young
women to keep them from running off. But Ma soon discovered that
it's impossible to teach a girl to run and simultaneously tie
her down. Early last December, fed up with Ma's methods and
angry that he had withheld the fruits of their victories, 17
runners--including 10,000-meter world-record holder Wang
Junxia--revolted, walking out of camp. Most did so with the
support of their parents. But Ma was so essential to their
success that without him, their performances have fallen off
dramatically. Meanwhile Ma has become Svengali to a new crop of
runners at a facility in Dalian built with at least some of the
winnings of his erstwhile enlistees.
Believing his mother to be the goddess of deer, Ma recently took
his new runners on a pilgrimage to her grave. That detail is
said to be in a forthcoming book about Ma that may never be
published, for its author isn't sure whether the authorities
consider Ma worthy of canonization or of condemnation. China's
take on this hybrid of Bobby Knight, Bela Karolyi and Timothy
Leary is much like the country's attitude toward its new,
ill-distributed prosperity: The Chinese are happy to claim the
successes, but they are a little embarrassed by how these
advances have come about.
"He uses dirty words," says Huang Zhihong, the former world
champion in the women's shot put. "His girls have to do laundry
for him and take food to him. But when they begin to know the
world, they don't listen to him anymore. Fifteen years ago you
could coach like this, because everyone was scared of coaches
and of politics. But not now. Now if you don't like the coach,
you can go someplace else."
Today the game that helped open up China during the Nixon era is
the poor sister of Chinese sports. The World Table Tennis
Championships, held in Tianjin in May, were swept by the home
team, but they attracted so little corporate sponsorship that
they rang up a huge loss. Meanwhile China is scarcely different
from any other country outside the U.S. in its fervor for
soccer. This season the 24 teams in China's two-year-old,
IMG-affiliated pro league expect to draw 1.5 million fans.
Recent visits by the European clubs Arsenal, A.C. Milan and
Sampdoria drew sellout crowds, and in Shanghai last season local
fans actually pelted followers of the visiting Chengdu club with
bottles, albeit plastic ones. Because of the government's decree
last spring that Saturday would join Sunday as a day off for all
Chinese workers, soccer is likely to attract still more fans and
Guo An, the Beijing team, is the current Chinese league leader.
Coach Jin Zhiyang, a compact man of expressionless intensity,
sits in his office next to the Workers' Stadium wearing Nike
shoes, Nike warmup pants and a Nike polo shirt. Only his watch,
a visitor remarks, isn't beswooshed. "Does Nike make a watch?"
Jin asks, in all seriousness, lest he miss out on something.
Jin is upset: Nike is tardy in delivering equipment included in
its sponsorship agreement, and he must make do with a single set
of uniforms when, he says, he has been promised five sets. But
he knows there's a latter-day solution to this latter-day
problem. "We're talking with Reebok right now," he says.
Several offices away, in a garret with a desk and a bed, Yang
Qun works and lives. He is Guo An's vice general manager, an
energetic, chain-smoking young man who has the oily charm of a
car salesman. He has learned quickly what it has taken
spendthrift Western sports barons many painful years to
discover: Money alone can't buy titles. Guo An has no foreign
players, even though league rules permit five imports per club.
"We believe we can beat any other team without them," Yang says.
"So why bother?" And while a team in Guangzhou just spent
$137,500 in transfer fees to buy two Chinese players, Yang isn't
concerned. "They're doing very well, but they're not Number 1,"
he says. "We are!"
This isn't to say Guo An isn't above buying a player or two.
Beijing's goalkeeper was lured there from a team in Hebei.
Yang shrugs. "Sixty years ago the most famous physicist,
Einstein, was stolen by the U.S.," he says.
To curb China's breathtaking population growth, the state has
enforced a strict single-child policy since 1981. With both
parents lavishing attention and resources on their only
offspring, the kid is likely to become a little terror with a
dynastic sense of entitlement. This phenomenon is so widespread
that it has a name: the Little Emperor Syndrome. At the Zhejiang
Provincial Physical Education and Sports School in Hangzhou--one
of the feeder schools that form the base of the pyramid of
talent that produced 96% of the champions at China's most recent
National Games--every gymnast is an only child. Every one, that
is, except the best athlete in the class, Ning Bo, 9, whose twin
brother attends art school. "My mother did not cry in front of
me," he says of the scene at the beginning of the term when he
was dropped off. "But of course she cried afterward, because I
was leaving her."
And what of his twin brother? "I don't miss him," Bo says. "No,
not at all. He misses me, but I don't miss him." Uneasy rests
the butt that shares a throne.
Jin Ronghu, the table tennis coach at the Zhejiang school, must
deal with Little Emperors and Empresses every day. For years
China banked on the ability of its spartan standard of
living--and the attendant willingness of its athletes to suffer
hardship, to chi ku, or "eat bitterness"--to temper future
champions. Now, instead of chowing down on bitterness, young
people clamor for seconds on dessert. "I have parents who drop
their kids off and wait for them all day," says Jin. "When it's
hot, they want to bring the kids extra to drink. I consider that
Lang Ping is perhaps the country's most famous product of "hard
training." Under martinet coach Yuan Weimin, Lang, who was known
as the Hammer for her merciless spiking, led the national
volleyball team to four world titles during the 1980s and the
gold medal at the '84 Olympics. Last February a Hong Kong
businessman bought out Lang's lucrative contracts on the U.S.
professional circuits so she could return to coach a national
team that, during the '90s, has been a chronic disappointment.
But as a coach the Hammer is a soft touch, a sort of anti-Ma who
has distanced herself from some of the very techniques that once
turned her into the greatest woman player in the world. Lang's
players work hard, sometimes training eight and nine hours a
day, 6 1/2 days a week. But they'll break to play soccer or
basketball or attend a dance class, and they take the occasional
day trip to the Great Wall. "I like to ask them what they
think," Lang says. "I don't like players who just say yes all
the time. Things are different now. Now you have to explain why
you're asking them to do something."
As he speaks, Guo Qinglong gesticulates so emphatically and
unrelentingly that you get the sense that if he were immersed in
a pool, the secretary general of the Chinese Swimming
Association could reset every record stripped from his swimmers
for using drugs. Eleven Chinese swimmers were caught during 1993
and '94. That was more than half of all the positives that had
turned up since drug tests in swimming began 23 years ago.
Guo has a litany of denials he calls forth with animated
gestures. He denies that the seven Chinese swimmers who tested
positive for the steroid dihydrotestosterone at the Asian Games
last fall were products of a systematic doping program. He
denies that officials of his federation sanctioned anything
illicit to help a women's swim team that had hardly caused a
ripple in international competition suddenly win a dozen golds
at the 1994 world championships. He denies that drug abuse is
more of a plague in China than anywhere else. These were the
acts of individuals, Guo insists--athletes and, perhaps, coaches
who were tempted by monetary incentives to use banned substances
that are available on the black market. When you fling the doors
open, as Deng has put it, "flies and mosquitoes are bound to
Are airborne insects to blame? Or bureaucratic cockroaches?
Scams take place at the local level all over sporting China. At
the Shanxi Provincial Games last summer, a swim team
representing one prefecture won $5,000 in prize money before
officials discovered that the team included impostors, ringers
from another prefecture. All told, 54 provincial title winners
were found to have false identity papers, and the closing
ceremonies were canceled to spare everyone embarrassment. On the
other hand, the protestations of China's top swimming officials
echo those heard from the sport's most prodigious cheats, the
East Germans, some of whose trainers have wound up in China. The
Chinese experienced the same sudden rise to prominence as the
East Germans; the same confinement of their success not simply
to women but to women sprinters, for whom power is more
important than technique; the same deep voices and strapping
physiques among female swimmers; the same unexplained absences
at certain competitions.
Swimming has a mythic place in postrevolutionary China. The day
after Chairman Mao took a well-publicized dip in the Yangtze in
1956, thousands of people did the same thing. So there's
additional sting to the country's loss of face at the Asian
Games. After news broke of the positive tests, pictures of the
disgraced swimmers appeared outside whorehouses in Hiroshima.
For a generally cloistered people, the Chinese have a surprising
love for the foreign sport of basketball. Stanchions with
backboards and hoops dot the countryside like mutant mushrooms.
When NBA commissioner David Stern visited China a few years ago,
as the Chicago Bulls were dominating basketball Stateside, he
was introduced to a provincial official who brightened when
informed of Stern's high office. "Ahhh!" the official said. "The
To the Chinese it isn't offensive to point out that they aren't
particularly big or strong. It's a fact, one grasped so firmly
by the Chinese Basketball Association that for a while league
games took place with a shot clock shortened to 25 seconds (from
the customary 30) to encourage players to take advantage of
their natural quickness. Similarly, as recently as four seasons
ago, players were awarded four points for every successful shot
beyond the arc after their team's fourth three-pointer in a
game. Market incentives, after a fashion.
China nonetheless has the slowest low-post player on earth.
Six-foot, eight-inch, 250-pound Zheng Haixia was named MVP at
the women's world championships in Australia a year ago, and she
was the primary reason China beat out the U.S. for the silver
medal. Zheng, 28, knows of Shaq and Hakeem, and she knows that
being huge can lead to celebrity, and celebrity can lead to
wealth. She says that contract offers from clubs in Italy,
Sweden and Spain have been faxed to her through the basketball
association, but they have never been delivered. Still she says
she would like to play overseas after the Olympics in Atlanta.
"It's important for us to get more publicity," she says. "It
acknowledges your role in society and your contributions to the
"One minute more," Zheng says, her patience wearing thin with a
photographer who has prevailed on her to pose.
"Make an interview?" she says. "Make a photograph?" She knows
the drill. "It is good for me. It is good for you."
And one more thing: "Can you send me clippings of your article?"
"How could Ma's army run a marathon a day without the aid of a
drink to help them recover?" asks Lixiao Ping. "Ma's success
proves we make quality fungus." Lixiao's entire being seems
buffed to a shine, from his slicked-back black hair to his thick
sunglasses to his synthetic-fiber business suit. He's general
manager of Zhong Shan City League New Technology, manufacturers
of Worm Hair King, one of Ma's famous elixirs, and he's happy to
talk up his tonic to anyone who will listen.
The fungus in question comes from the rare dong qiong sya
cao--literally, "winter bug, summer grass"--found almost
exclusively in the up-country of the western provinces. After
the caterpillar dies, a fungus grows on its carcass, and out of
the fungus sprout long grasslike strands. The thick dark-brown
extract from that worm hair is said to clear bronchial tubes and
increase circulation, and that's what Lixiao's company provided
gratis to Ma's army. "This is what I tell my girls to drink,"
the great coach said, holding up the potion after his runners
shattered three world records at the 1993 National Games. But
soon afterward Ma dropped Worm Hair King and struck a deal with
a firm that makes something called China Turtle Essence. And in
return for posing with his runners in front of a $70,000 Audi
sedan, Ma got to keep the car and $50,000 in cash. Seven months
later he signed with a company that makes herbal patent
medicines, in exchange for $10 million and an ownership stake.
Ma's ingratitude leaves Lixiao sputtering. "We supported Ma when
he was just a pig farmer," Lixiao says. "He should be full of
shame. Ma is worse than a blind American capitalist. At least in
America you must honor a contract. Advertising turtle drink. Ha!
"He forgot about being Chinese. According to our traditions, you
should go to great lengths to do good things for people who help
you. Yes, like your person O.J., people still always talk about
this man Ma. But everything they are saying is bad."
It's not easy to walk away from Lixiao Ping and his testimonials
to quality fungus. "If you are 60 years old and walk with a
cane, drink 16 bottles and you will not need a cane anymore," he
"Why 16 bottles? I cannot tell you. It is a secret."
Lixiao is both beneficiary and victim of the Western ways
infiltrating Chinese sport, but with that last pitch he reminds
us that his country hasn't abandoned many time-tested Eastern
ways. In Atlanta the world will have been forewarned: China has
plenty of flies and mosquitoes, but it has its worms, too.