Publish date:

ON THE MOVE FROM SHANGHAI TO TIANJIN, CHINA'S GREATEST OLYMPIC RESOURCE IS CLEARLY ITS FEMALE ATHLETES

Author:

In centuries-old Chinese iconography the character for phoenix
has been used to represent woman. As China makes like a firebird
economically, the People's Republic is tracing a parallel ascent
in international sports and doing so on the wings of the gender
that Mao once said "holds up half the sky."

She is only 23, but Wang Junxia has already written her own
phoenician chapter in the annals of Chinese athletics. Her first
rise was unlikely enough: Wang, a fisherman's daughter from the
rural northeast, became such an accomplished runner that in 1993
she mocked the world record in the 10,000 meters, breaking it by
42 seconds. At the time she was indentured to coach Ma Junren,
the running guru whose so-called Family Army submitted to a
regimen of exotic elixirs; daily training sessions that
sometimes included running the equivalent of a marathon; a ban
on frills such as boyfriends, makeup and long hair; and
(presumably to rid the human machine of any nonessential parts)
mandatory appendectomies.

But in 1994 Wang padded out of Ma's camp on her size-6 feet with
at least 11 other runners, citing beatings, misappropriation of
winnings and medical neglect. The coach's control was so total
that he also allegedly attempted to arrange for Wang to marry
his son and kept from her the news that her brother had died in
a traffic accident. The runners began training on their own, but
without a coach Wang languished. She fell out of the world
rankings for the 10,000 last year and lost a 5,000 last October
to the latest foot soldier in her old coach's reconstituted
army, a teenager named Jiang Bo.

That set the stage for China's national track and field
championships in Nanjing two months ago, when the most
astonishing reversal of fortunes took place. Without Ma, who was
being treated for an intestinal ailment back in Beijing, none of
his female Manchurian candidates for the Olympic team won a
thing--not Jiang, who came up lame in the 5,000-meter final and
withdrew from the 10,000, and not the lone holdover from the old
Family Army, Qu Yunxia, who's reported to have stayed with Ma
only because her parents are indebted to him for the house in
which they live.

Meanwhile Wang, who had been training for several months under
the lighter hand of coach Mao Dezhen, clocked a 14:51.87 in the
5,000, the year's fastest time. Two days later, in a preliminary
heat of the 10,000, she ripped off a 31:01.76, the best time in
that event in two years. Twice during that 10,000 she lapped the
field, and with 1,500 meters to go a fan yelled out, "Lap 'em a
third time!"

Smiles do not readily cross Wang's face. But at that remark this
5'3", 99-pound waif, without the slightest break in stride, let
her visage go full-megawatt. From Ma to Mao: What a difference a
vowel makes.

"I'm not satisfied," Wang said shortly after coming off the
track. Her remark precisely echoed that of 20-year-old swimmer
Liu Limin at April's national swimming championships in Tianjin
after Liu won the 100-meter butterfly with a time of 59.57
seconds--just 1.64 seconds off the world record--which would
have left most other swimmers content.

Attitudes like Wang's and Liu's are one reason that women won 34
of China's 54 medals in Barcelona four years ago and are
expected to do at least that well in Atlanta. But there are many
other reasons as well. Chinese women pull up their performances
by frequently training with men. Chinese sports officials
believe that the physiological differences between Asian and
Western women are negligible compared with those between Asian
and Western men, and are easier to overcome with rigorous
training and diligent coaching. Eating disorders, that peril of
many women athletes in the West, were unheard of in China,
perhaps because of the absence until recently of images in
advertising and the press idealizing the female form. (Hearing a
foreign visitor try to explain anorexia recently, a Chinese
sports journalist furrowed his brow uncomprehendingly and then
said, "Here, only people without food starve to death.")

There is, alas, ample evidence in China of the worldwide scourge
of performance-enhancing drugs, which have a greater effect on
women than on men. China's woman swimmers would be even more of
a threat in Atlanta if such champions as Lu Bin and Yang Aihua
hadn't been busted for anabolic steroids at the 1994 Asian Games
and banned from the '96 Olympics.

But cultural factors may explain the Chinese athletes' success
as much as anything. Chinese women are born into a hard life.
Their coaches, nearly all of whom are male, operate in an
environment influenced for thousands of years by three prominent
Confucian principles: A girl shall obey her father; a wife, her
husband; a widow, her son. More than one out of every three
Chinese women can't read, a rate 22% sorrier than that of
Chinese men, because many parents and bureaucrats don't see the
value of educating girls in a patriarchy; male heirs are so
prized under the government's single-child policy that female
infanticide is not unusual. And while the practice of binding
women's feet to keep them from running off was halted early in
this century, women are still sometimes forcibly sterilized or
sold into marriage. Faced with those rows to hoe, a Chinese
woman might not find the task of winning an Olympic medal
particularly daunting.

At a sports school in Lanzhou recently, a 22-year-old field
hockey goalie named Cheng Qingxia sidled over to take a break
after being peppered with shots at practice. "I enjoy having
balls hit at me," she said. "It makes me feel like a soldier
when I play. If the men can act like that, why can't I?" Then
she removed the cap from a soft-drink bottle with her teeth.

The applicable phrase is chi ku: eat bitterness. "Chinese women
are better able to eat bitterness and endure hardship than
Western women," says Tian Wenhui, who heads the committee
governing the network of specialty schools that produce roughly
95% of the country's elite athletes.

It was evidence of a taste for bitterness that persuaded the
deputy coach of China's Olympic swim team to take a chance on Le
Jingyi, the freestyle sprinter who should win at least two gold
medals in Atlanta. When the coach, Zhou Ming, discovered Le, she
was a scrawny nine-year-old whose lanky physique and oversized
head earned her the nickname Bean Sprout. She couldn't swim
particularly fast. But Zhou noticed that she showed up at the
pool every day in spite of a lengthy bus ride from her home, and
one day she trained with an open wound on her knee, oblivious to
the sting of the chlorine. "That made a big impression on me,"
says Zhou. "I thought, 'Maybe we can keep her on the team for a
couple of years and follow her progress.' She turned out to be a
late bloomer."

And what a flowering. Now 21, the erstwhile Bean Sprout is known
in international swimming circles as the Human Harpoon.

Le is from Shanghai, China's largest city. But the next great
Chinese swimmer may be among the 800 million peasants who make
up most of the country's 1.2 billion people and who are only
beginning to benefit from the current economic reforms. A
breathlessly rising standard of living should eventually bring
better sports facilities and nutrition to small towns and the
countryside. The incentives to participate are already in place:
Women who excel in sports receive the same government support,
bonuses (including up to $10,000 for an Olympic gold medal) and
occasional endorsement opportunities as men--and more public
approbation.

Susan Brownell, an American anthropologist whose book Training
the Body for China examines sports in the People's Republic, has
a theory to explain why the Chinese people are quicker to
embrace women's athletic triumphs than men's. "It may have
something to do with a history of honoring female martyrdom,"
Brownell says. "Chinese people are comfortable with the idea of
their women suffering pain for the good of the nation--as
opposed to the Western, Victorian view that it's the male's duty
to work hard so women don't have to suffer."

As late as the middle of the last century the imperial
government erected memorial arches to honor widows who committed
suicide upon the deaths of their husbands. Further, Brownell
says, in China there's no historical bias against women
participating in sports. A poet of the Ming dynasty, writing of
women playing a sort of kickball popular during the 15th and
16th centuries, described "the sweat on their powdered faces" as
looking "like dew on flowers." But the male leaders of the time
themselves forswore sweaty endeavor because their creed exalted
the cultivation of the mind over that of the body. Thus woman
and sport were an ideal match: second-class citizen,
frowned-upon pursuit.

Yet in today's China, women who parlay their training and
accomplishments into fame can leapfrog up the social ladder.
Parents' preference for boys has resulted in a surfeit of
eligible men, and thus women enjoy a buyer's role in the
marriage marketplace, where status is even more important than
wealth given the absence of great disparities in individual
financial worth. And on the whole Chinese men don't consider
athletic women unfeminine. After the women's volleyball team won
world titles in 1981, '82, '85 and '86, plus an Olympic gold
medal in '84, the players were showered with flowers and
marriage proposals. While the Western media doted on the
nuptials of a Lady named Di, Chinese television broadcast
nationally the wedding of the volleyball team's star, Lang Ping,
a spiker known as the Hammer.

In Atlanta, Chinese of both sexes will excel at sports that
emphasize technique: diving, gymnastics, table tennis. But
unlike the men, the women will also make their mark in sports
requiring strength and stamina. The legendary Lang has taken
over as coach of the volleyball team after it suffered a stretch
of poor seasons, and the women should bag a medal again. The
basketball team won a silver at the '94 worlds, beating out the
U.S. women, who settled for bronze. The swimming team has
restocked after the scandals of '94, and Chinese women are also
likely to win medals in judo, soccer and the shot put.

But changes are afoot that could slow the rise of the phoenix.
Now that world champion gymnast Mo Huilan appears on the cover
of China Pictorial hawking a diet aid called Guo's Totally
Nutritious Slimming Extract ("The authorized, nutritious
weight-control food product of the women's gymnastic team of
China"), eating disorders and an altered conception of
femininity can't be far behind. Now that shopping centers are
going up in most large Chinese cities, potential teenage
swimming phenoms will face the same temptations to chow down on
Big Macs (rather than bitterness) that their counterparts in
Mission Viejo, Melbourne and Munich face. And now that girlish
ponytails bob on the backs of even Ma's runners, as they did at
the nationals in Nanjing, draconian coaching methods that seek
to squeeze every last hundredth of a second from malleable
peasants are in jeopardy.

During that meet Wang's time in the 10,000-meter final was
almost 10 seconds slower than her world best in the prelims. But
it hardly mattered. "Win your own medal, without Ma!" a male fan
yelled as Wang went into her kick. The Olympics beckoned, the
old Svengali was in the hospital, and she was making it on her
own. If Nanjing had been Minneapolis, Wang would have been Mary
Richards.

So much for Confucius and the principles of obedience.
"Confucius was a great philosopher," says Liu, Chinese
swimming's fly girl. "But times have changed, and our society
has progressed. What men can do, women should also be able to do."

Beware the day when, in sports, China's men will be able to do
what its women already can.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN WANG (WINNING THE 5,000 IN NANJING), WHO ONCE SOLDIERED FOR MA, WILL LEAD CHINA'S CHARGE IN ATLANTA [Wang Junxia leading pack of female runners in race]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTINSPORTS THAT EMPHASIZE STRENGTH, SUCH AS ROWING AND SHOT PUT, ARE MOSTLY WOMEN'S WORK IN CHINA, WITH ATHLETES SUCH AS SUI XINMEI (RIGHT) AT THE FORE [Eight-women rowing team training]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above--Sui Xinmei putting shot]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN LE HAS METAMORPHOSED FROM THE LANKY BEAN SPROUT AT AGE NINE TO THE HEFTY HUMAN HARPOON AT 21 [Le Jingyi in swimming pool]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER SOFTBALL MAY BE MADE IN THE USA, BUT THE CHINESE WILL BE MAKING A STRONG PITCH FOR A MEDAL THIS SUMMER [Woman pitching softball]