Wang Junxia Hang-gliding In Beijing

A run for the ages

Retired runner Wang Junxia isn’t as fast these days. Not that the women’s world record holder for 10,000 meters needs to be though. Now she chases after various other interests, writes Zhou Zuyi.

Wang Junxia, the women’s world record holder for 10,000-meter run, cares nothing about the coming World Athletic Championships in Paris next month. While Paula Radcliffe of Britain, the current queen of middle- and long-distance running, boasts she will shatter Wang’s 10-year-old record, the Liaoning native casually poses for photos at a press conference for Shanghai’s annual Amway Nutrilite 10-kilometer health run last Thursday.

Jogging is simply part of my life,'' says the 27-year-old former multiple world championship trophy holder. I still run, but not for gold medals or world records – just for health and happiness.’’

Clad in an azure striped T-shirt and baggy sports trousers, Wang looks more like an average morning exerciser than a veteran athlete. She talks more about family, hobbies and even her brief film career – everything except track and field – until she is reminded that 2003 marks the 10th anniversary of her record-shattering run.

Yes, I remember,'' she finally says. For the athletic world, the summer of 1993 was full of miracles. A team of female athletes, known as Ma’s army,’’ from Liaoning Province and coached by Ma Junren, put Chinese athletics on the world map. Together they captured gold medals in the women’s 1,500-, 3,000- and 10,000-meter runs at the Stuttgart World Athletic Championships. Among the dazzling feats, Wang claimed the 10,000-meter trophy.

One month later in Beijing, Wang, dubbed the ``Divine Deer of the Orient,’’ stunned the world again with a world record time of 29:31.78 in the 10,000-meter final at the National Games – the first woman to cover the distance in less than 30 minutes. The heroics were just beginning however.

In the following days, Wang improved the 3,000-meter world record twice. Including her shattering performance in the 10,000 meters, she swept away four world records in six days. ``I had never expected I could deliver such a spectacular performance,’’ Wang says, playing down the achievements.

``It’s more like luck, or destiny, whatever you name it. Ironically though, despite the glamorous achievements on the track, I didn’t feel happy at all in those days.’’

Wang’s wistful comments are directed toward former coach Ma. The high school teacher-turned-instructor was known for his unorthodox ideas of creating world champions from rustic peasant girls. After the banner year of 1993, rifts between Ma and his proteges emerged. Disputes over prize money sapped ``Ma’s army’’ greatly as Wang and her teammate Liu Dong, the former 1,500-meter world champion, led a 1994 walkout – an unusual and bold move.

A further blow to Ma’s reputation emerged from controversial bestseller, Inside Stories of Ma's Army'' by writer Zhao Yu. The book revealed in detail Ma's patriarchal coaching style, harsh training methods and non-existent scientific rehabilitation measures. It was dark in those days,’’ says Wang, the 1994-winner of the prestigious Jesse-Owens International Trophy Award. ``I witnessed a lot of unreasonable elements in the training system and cried out for changes, but never got a response.’’

The straightforward criticism of both the coach and system eventually backfired on Wang, forced her into early retirement in 1997. She was only 22. But Wang insists she has no regrets. ``At least I was lucky enough to have a taste of Olympic gold after I left `Ma’s Army’,’’ she says.

It was the best moment of my life.'' Under the guidance of Mao Dezhen, her second and final athletic instructor, Wang kicked off her campaign to challenge for an Olympic title at the Atlantic Games only months after leaving Ma. Her target was the 10,000-meter run, yet the triumph unexpectedly came in the 5,000-meter race. My friends formed a cheering section for me and they only bought tickets for the 10,000-meter final,’’ she says. ``So when I finished first in the 5,000-meter final, I only heard sporadic applause from a few Chinese spectators in the stands. But fortunately, one of them brought along a national flag. I draped it on myself and circled the stadium. It felt like I was on top of the world.’’

No cheering compatriot, no new world record and no teammate were around. But Wang was deservedly exhilarated with the feat. Soon after the 1996 Olympic Games, Wang retired.

She went to the University of Colorado for an undergraduate degree.

Three years later she transferred back to the People’s University in Beijing and achieved a diploma of law last year. In 2001, Wang married former footballer Zhan Yu and gave birth to the couple’s first child. She admits that she once yearned for a comeback in track, but has backed off from the idea.

Though Ma, now a senior official with the Liaoning Sports Administrative Bureau, attended Wang’s wedding ceremony in 2001, he still viewed her as a ``traitor.’’ With the help of friends, Wang has since established a business, the Junxia Sporting Equipment Co in Beijing, her current home.

In her leisure time, the former world-record holder, now enjoys hang-gliding. She’s even found time to appear in a film, playing a single mother in a small role.

But does she ever spare any thoughts on athletics? The answer is yes. Wang has long thought of starting her own track-and-field club.

The idea simmered in my mind during my stay in the United States,'' she says. The domestic training system lags too much behind international standards. I want to do my bit to improve it.’’

Although there are no plans yet for the club, it’s a dream worth chasing. She’s still fast on her feet, but as she says, running is purely for personal enjoyment these days.

Shanghai Daily News