Sporting Controversies: Ma’s Army, turtle blood and Sonia’s stolen gold
Medals won by Chinese women would later be said to have been ‘showered in doping’
Sonia O’Sullivan on her way to finishing second in the 1,500m. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
There are possibly some people, somewhere, who still attribute the most incredible running performances of our time to the fresh turtle blood and caterpillar fungus, plus of course the marathon-a-day training, even when evidence later emerged they were “showered in doping”.
It probably wouldn’t matter much anyway, only for the fact Sonia O’Sullivan is still feeling the cost of the crazy Chinese medal takeaway back in the summer of 1993. They say the truth always comes out in the end, even if some people still can’t seem to handle it all.
The plan was to win her favourite event and then try double-up in the metric mile. Such was O’Sullivan’s form going into those World Athletics Championships in Stuttgart that not winning one gold medal was likely to be a disappointment - certainly to her - and there was a good chance she could come away with two gold medals.
There was already considerable excitement around Stuttgart, the first of the new two-year cycle of World Championships, after Helsinki (1983), Rome (1987) and Tokyo (1991); the then-named Neckarstadion was also familiar to any Irish fans who made the trip, the same place where at Euro 88 Ray Houghton put the ball in the back of the England net. Luck was still in the air.
At age 23 O’Sullivan was fast coming into her running prime. A year earlier, at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, she’d led the 3,000m around the final bend, poised for gold, before Yelena Romanova and Tetyana Dorovskikh, representing the unified Russia, darted past in quick succession. O’Sullivan ended up fourth: in June of 1993, Dorovskikh tested positive for steroids, which finished her career (while in 2007, Romanova died suddenly of unknown causes, at the age of 43).
Surely O’Sullivan would not be denied this time. In her final two races before Stuttgart, she clocked 8:30.12 to win the 3,000m at the Zurich Golden League, the fastest time in Europe, and followed that up three days later by winning the 1,500m in Monaco in a national record of 3:59.60 - both races marked by her astonishing finishing kick. No athlete is ever unbeatable, only in both those races she wasn’t far off. She was absolutely flying.
There was however some mystery around the entry of China’s women’s distance runners: in June 1993 the IAAF, now World Athletics, received an application for a world junior 3,000m record of 8:36.45 by Ma Ningning, clocked in Jinan on June 6th. Amazingly, the forms showed that Ma had actually only placed fourth in a very fast race behind Wang Junxia (8:27.68), Qu Yunxia (8:29.30) and Zhang Lirong (8:35.05).
All four runners were coached by Ma Junren, who had set up several high-altitude training camps in remote locations around China, including the Duoba training centre in Qinhai Province, which lies at 2,360m. Coaching women’s distance runners only, demanding they keep their hair very short as if to resemble young boys, Ma’s arrival in Stuttgart with nine of his distance runners in strict regimental tow promptly earned them the title ‘Ma’s Army’: despite their complete lack of global championship experience, Ma claimed they would win the 1,500m, the 3,000m and the 10,000m - which is exactly what they did.
First up for O’Sullivan, on the Saturday August 14th, was her 3,000m heat, which she duly won in 8:50.62, with Zhang Lirong from Ma’s Army a close second. Monday’s final was cagey until exactly 2,300m, when the Chinese trio of Qu, Zhang, and Zhang Linli took off in spectacular fashion, Qu in front, filed it seemed in descending order of height.
Clocking 60.72 for the section between 2,400m and 2,800m, they shattered the field and the race, Zhang Lirong holding off O’Sullivan for the bronze, the only other runner able make any sort of impression in the closing stages. Qu covered the final lap in an amazing 59.22. The look on O’Sullivan’s face said it all.
The scoreboard read: 3,000m final: 1, Qu Yunxia CHN 8:28.71 2, Zhang Linli CHN 8:29.25 3, Zhang Lirong CHN 8:31.95 4, Sonia O’Sullivan IRL 8:33.38 5, Alison Wyeth GBR 8:38.42 6, Yelena Romanova RUS 8:39.69.
O’Sullivan had four days to regroup before Friday’s heats of the 1,500m, which she also won in 4:05.81, Lü Yi of China in second. Sunday’s final, one of the headline races on the last day of competition, was another mad affair. A personal best of 4:04.36 in the heats, including a 45.25 last 300m, marked out Liu Dong as the probable winner; she shared the lead with defending champion Hassiba Boulmerka from Algeria, before at precisely 800m, Liu took off and ran clear of everyone with a 60.15 circuit, accelerating again with 57.48 last lap.
This time O’Sullivan chased with everything she had, winning the silver medal, with Boulmerka also outrunning the other Chinese finalist, Lu, to win the bronze. Liu then took off of a lap of honour, where sections of the crowd could be heard booing after the sight of another Chinese woman runner sprinting away to victory.
The scoreboard this time read: 1,500, final: 1, Liu Dong CHN 4:00.50 2, Sonia O’Sullivan IRL 4:03.48 3, Hassiba Boulmerka ALG 4:04.29 4, Lu Yi CHN 4:06.06 5, Angela Chalmers CAN 4:07.95 6, Theresia Kiesl AUT 4:08.04.
Overall medal table
Another of Ma’s Army, Wang Junxia, won the 10,000m in 30:49.30, ahead of Zhong Huandi, and China finished second on the overall medal table, to the USA, Ma’s Army winning six out of a possible nine medals in the three distance running events they entered.
All the gold medal winners in Stuttgart also won a new ruby red Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Qu revealing that she would be giving her prize car to her father, as she could not drive. O’Sullivan finished out the season by winning six of her next seven races, including Berlin, Brussels and Reiti, although the Chinese women were nowhere to be seen. Indeed Qu nor the Zhangs were never seen again at any global athletics championship.
Ma’s Army weren’t finished for the season just yet: at the China National Games in Beijing that September, Wang broke three world records in three events consecutively over a range of distances: her 8:06.11 for 3,000m still standing, her 29:31.78 for 10,000m proving effectively untouchable, before Almaz Ayana from Ethiopia ran 29:17.45 at the Rio Olympics. At those same China National Games, Qu Yunxia ran a 1,500m world record time of 3:50.46, which stood until July 2015, when Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba ran 3:50.07.
In September of 1993, the Telegraph sent Iain Macleod to China to write a feature about Ma’s Army, and he found the runners, 18 in all, training under extremely strict and Spartan conditions, generally running 30km in the morning, and another 12km in the afternoon (hence the marathon-a-day). Ma claimed to feed them a range of Chinese potions a day, including the warm blood of a freshly decapitated turtle (Ma having done the honours), although he suggested he’d been joking about the caterpillar fungus.
The 44-year-old had no athletics background, smoked 40 cigarettes a day, and admitted losing up to 10 per cent of his athletes through injury. He also hailed Chinese women’s perceived capacity for “eating bitterness”.
None of Ma’s Army failed a doping test at the time, although the endurance drug EPO, which since the early 1990s had come flooding into cycling, and was now known to be spilling over into athletics, wasn’t detectible until 2000. “It seems there is still an impenetrable and puzzling explanation waiting to be revealed about history’s most phenomenal female distance runners”, Macleod concluded in his feature article.
Eventually that wait was over: according to Chinese state media reports, released in February 2016, all nine of Ma’s Army in Stuttgart were forced to take “large doses of illegal drugs over the years”.
A letter, signed by Wang and her eight team-mates, detailed the regime of State-sponsored doping, and was published in several Chinese media outlets, including the South China Morning Post. The letter was originally penned two years after Wang set those world records in the 3,000m and 10,000m metre races, and she 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 that Ma would personally inject the drugs into his athletes.
The letter was sent to a journalist named Zhao Yu, but it remained unpublished for 19 years. “We are humans, not animals,” said the team members in one passage. “For many years, [HE]forced us to take a large dose of illegal drugs. It was true...”
“Our feelings are sorry and complex when exposing his [MA’S]deeds,” the letter continued. “We are also worried that we would harm our country’s fame and reduce the worth of the gold medals we have worked very hard to get.”
Then in October 2017, there was further evidence: in an interview with German broadcaster ARD Sportschau, former Chinese team doctor Xue Yinxian claimed all medals won by the Chinese athletes in the 1980s and 1990s should be handed back, such was the systematic level of doping within the country at the time.
The then 79-year-old, who had arrived in Germany seeking political asylum, said all Chinese medals were “showered in doping” and in fact extended beyond national teams. “In the 1980s and 90s, Chinese athletes on the national teams made extensive use of doping substances,” she says. “Gold, silver and bronze. All international medals should be withdrawn.”
By then, 10 of the top-17 performances all-time in the 3,000m distance were still credited to Ma’s Army; 13 of the top-29 1,500m performances all-time were also still credited to his athletes. O’Sullivan went on to win the 1995 World Championship 5,000m, and in 2016 both World Athletics and the World Ant-Doping Agency declared their intention to further examine the evidence of doping in China, and then silence…
In her own words: Sonia O’Sullivan on Ma’s Army
Nothing will ever replace the feeling of winning two World Championship gold medals, in near perfect succession, especially not 27 years later. For Sonia O’Sullivan, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some merit in turning back the clock to August of 1993.
“If someone sends me out two gold medals next week, then they’re just going to end up in a drawer somewhere. It’s not going to make any great difference in my life, how or where I am right now.
“I never really think about it anymore, have moved on in every sense. Still it always makes me curious why it was never truly investigated. There was a sense of satisfaction at the time, four years ago, to know that there was some confirmation, even if not proven, but it still leaves a big question mark over this short period of time in our sport.
“There was never any follow up by the IAAF, who at the time seemed to be more focussed on recent back testing to 2012, where they still had samples that could be re-tested. Maybe now is time to start asking more questions, and why the record books are allowed to stand and the medal tables from 1993. Maybe somebody should finally stand up and set the record straight.
“If the results are ever adjusted, and I am a three-time World champion, that would definitely be hugely satisfying for me, to have your name in the record books like that. It would definitely make me a lot more content about my overall career, what is written down in history like that.
“Maybe if the Chinese didn’t run those times in 1993, weren’t driving me like that, I wouldn’t have come out and run as fast as I did in 1994. And also in 1994, after being sort of knee-jerked into training as hard as I possibly could, running unbelievable times, I could have had the world record for the 3,000m, and it would have stood for the next eight years.”