First they sparked controversy by sweeping the 1,500, 3,000 and 10,000 meters at last month's World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. Then, in China's National Games that ended this week in Beijing, the People's Republic's band of preternatural women runners destroyed world records at all three distances, fanning the spark into a bonfire even as Beijing's bid to host the 2000 Summer Olympics entered the homestretch (page 46).
The binge of improbable records began when 20-year-old Wang Junxia, the 10,000-meter world champion, broke the 10,000 mark, set by Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway in 1986, by 42 seconds, with a 29:31.78 clocking. Piling amazement upon amazement, Wang placed second three days later in the 1,500 to 20-year-old Qu Yunxia, the world 3,000 champ, whose 3:50.46 smashed the 13-year-old record of 3:52.47 held by Tatyana Kazankina of the former Soviet Union; Wang's 3:51.92 was also under the old mark. Finally, Wang lead a mass assault on Kazankina's 10-year-old record of 8:22.62 in the 3,000. By the time it was over, five Chinese runners had bettered that clocking, and Wang had twice obliterated the record, running 8:12.19 in a heat and an incredible 8:06.11 in the final.
But forget 8:06.11. Chinese press reports of Wang's 10,000 had her covering the final 3,000 meters of that race in an outrageous 7:51. Had a woman really run a 4:12.6-per-mile pace for nearly two miles at the end of a 6.2-mile race, when the women's world record for a single mile is 4:15.61? Or, as some suspected, had Wang run only 24 laps instead of the required 25? The likeliest explanation was that the press accounts had simply gotten the splits wrong. Still, such a mixup fueled speculation by observers in the West that China's new champions have benefited from some startling advances in drug-assisted training. But Chinese officials indignantly pointed out that Wang, Qu and their compatriots have been tested for drugs and come up negative.
So, as ever, there is mystery in the Middle Kingdom. The mystery wasn't exactly cleared up by Ma Junren, who coaches Wang, Qu and several other astonishingly precocious runners who hail from remote Liaoning Province. At a news conference Ma held up a brown box and said it contained the key to his runners' success—"a health tonic made from caterpillar fungus." Ma said he also fed the women soup made from soft-shell river turtles and a potion extracted from a worm sold on China's herbal market as an aphrodisiac for men. He said, too, that he applied the running technology of the sika deer and the ostrich. Far from being secretive, Ma said he would gladly sell details of his methods to rivals because "we always need funds to buy turtles."
In a 3-2 win last week over the Florida Marlins, the San Diego Padres employed an all-Ivy League battery—catcher Brad Ausmus (Dartmouth) and pitcher Frank Seminara (Columbia). Ausmus, who became the talk of the sports-writing profession earlier this season when he used the word malevolence in an interview, said that when it came to communication, he and Seminara were on the same wavelength. "Like our signs for pitches," he said. "It's fingers times pi squared plus half the distance of the baseline."
No sooner was Allen Iverson sentenced to five years in prison last week for his involvement in a bowling alley brawl (SI, July 26) than his supporters cried foul, contending that Judge Nelson Overton's punishment was too severe. Iverson, a 6'1" guard who may be the best high school basketball player in the country, will spend what would have been his senior year at Bethel High in Hampton, Va., in jail, though with good behavior he could be free by next summer.
"We're beginning to see (Clansmen in robes of a different color," said Joyce Hobson, a local schoolteacher who organized a support group for Iverson and three codefendants, all of whom are black. Benjamin Chavis Jr., national director of the NAACP, called the case "a travesty of justice."
In such a racially charged case—Iverson was convicted of three counts of maiming by mob, for knocking a white woman unconscious with a chair in a fight between whites and blacks—it's understandable that the sentence should be subject to close scrutiny. But it's also worth noting that it fell well within state guidelines, which are based on sentences in similar cases over a five-year period.
Whatever the fairness of the sentence, the reality of college sports is that felony convictions don't necessarily scare oil recruiters. In prison Iverson can earn his general equivalency degree, which he will need to be eligible for college basketball. If he is released next summer, he will receive plenty of offers. It's still possible for him to salvage his promising career, not to mention his life.
A Purist's Heresy
I am one of those baseball fans owners condescendingly refer to as "purists," as in: "The purists may not like this, but our studies show...." I think the game should be played on growing grass, in historic ballparks and, whenever possible, during daylight hours.
So you might think I would be apoplectic after the owners voted last week to go to three divisions in each league next year and expand the postseason to include one more round of playoffs and a wild-card team. On the contrary, I like realignment for a couple of Gallego-sized reasons and a single Gonzalez-sized one. I applaud the notion that four more cities will get a civic boost each autumn. The three-division setup will also sharpen the focus on some regional rivalries that have grown fuzzy. But the big reason to embrace realignment is that it paves the way to interleague play. If fans accept three divisions, and they will, then the once heretical idea of American League teams playing National League teams in the regular season won't seem like such a quantum leap.
Why is interleague play so appealing? Two words: Michael Jordan. Imagine if the Chicago Bulls played only against teams in the NBA's Eastern Conference. Unlike the NBA, baseball denies fans half its stars, except in the All-Star Game and the World Series. No wonder baseball doesn't have a star as big as Jordan or Joe Montana; baseball players don't get around the way those two do.
Interleague play would give fans the chance to see every star and every team, at least now and then. If you're sitting at home in Pittsburgh, wondering whether to go to today's Pirate game, wouldn't a visit from Ken Griffey Jr. and the Seattle Mariners be more attractive than the 13th game this season with the Florida Marlins?
How can I want interleague play and be a purist? Well, I want the pure pleasure of watching Tom Glavine pitch to Frank Thomas.
Wang's record run in the 10,000 may have been worm-aided.
Brent Fanning, the driver of the Pontiac Trans Am shown above, has been suspended because of a stunt he pulled at the U.S. Nationals drag races in Indianapolis. Fanning is sponsored by a dairy, which is why the vehicle is painted black and white like a holstein and why it's dubbed the Udder Car. Unfortunately, the dairy tie-in inspired Fanning to drop a box of cow manure onto the track at the start of a run, causing a mess that took 20 minutes to clean up. Fanning admits he blew it. "It was supposed to come out in a pile at the starting line, not spray all over the place like it did," he says.
Oh, and the other way would have been funny?
All Choked Up
As visiting American League teams bid farewell to moldering Cleveland Stadium, which will be replaced in '94 by a new ballpark, the valedictories have been stirring. For example, New York Yankee manager Buck Showalter (right) said, "I'm as nostalgic as the next guy, but I took a good look around and said good riddance." The Minnesota Twins' 41-year-old Dave Winfield was misty, too. Said he, "It was a nice place in the 1920s...when I first started out."
They Said It
•Charles Flaherty, speaker of the Massachusetts House, on a proposed covered stadium for the New England Patriots: "Why do we need a domed stadium? So we can watch somebody kick a football 70 feet in the air every fourth down?"
•Harvey Walken, part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, on the Chicago Cubs' failure to win a World Series since 1908: "Any team can have a bad century."