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Unbreakable record? 10,000-meter mark seems safe

Aug. 14, 2008, 11:09 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Here's a safe bet for the Beijing Olympics: No one will break the world record for the women's 10,000 meters when the race is run on the first day of track and field on Friday.

That's because no one has even come close to Wang Junxia's mark in the 15 years since she set it in Beijing.

China in the early 1990s, those were weird times.

The shootings that put an end to democracy protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989 were still fresh in the memory. Because of them, China was in the international bad books. Then, seemingly out of the blue, a chain-smoking Chinese coach, Ma Junren, unleashed an army of record-breaking distance runners on the world.

Drugs! his critics charged. "These people themselves are taking drugs," Ma retorted.

China did cut six of Ma's runners from its 2000 Sydney Olympics squad after pre-games blood tests produced what authorities called "suspicious" results. But there was never any rock-solid proof that Wang, who had retired by then, was given anything more than turtle blood, ginseng and a stamina-boosting fungus, as Ma claimed.

So her record stays on the books - no matter the suspicions that still linger.

Wang was the coach's brightest star. She remains the only woman to have run the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) race in less than 30 minutes. Her record is 29:31.78. It was a one-off. She never broke the 30-minute barrier again. In fact, she never came within a minute of her own mark. The records show Britain's Paula Radcliffe, who plans to run the marathon in Beijing, as the second-fastest woman over 10K. But her 30:01.09, in 2002, was still a half-minute slower, which equates to about half a lap.

Wang, now 35, says her record is easy to explain.

"I was 20 years old in 1993. I had been in full-time training for one year and a half, not quite two years. That was when my health and everything else was at its best, so that is why my athletics achievements reached their peak," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview last week.

Ma's training regimen was brutal, more than a marathon a day. It drove Wang away from him eventually and, she says, explains why she never ran so fast again over 10K, although she did win Olympic silver over the distance and gold over 5,000 at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

"I put in a terrible amount physically, to the point where I was never fully fit in competition. I was always getting sick," she said. "I trained too much."

No chemistry, she insisted. "I was just a rare talent."

"If I had been given it (drugs), then it should have shown up in tests," she said. "Tests back then caught other people using things. So how can anyone say that we might have been using things that couldn't be tested for?"

Well, doping tests then were nowhere near as thorough as today, and even now there are loopholes that dopers wriggle through.

Back then, Mark Butler was the official statistician for the IAAF, the governing body of athletics. He recalls the skepticism that greeted Wang's record but said it wasn't a complete surprise to them because the Chinese had run well in 1992 and 1993. He also said he believed that "Wang and other Chinese were tested by the IAAF in China sometime in 1993."

"It was not like Wang had come from nowhere," he wrote in an e-mail.

One key question is whether Wang's record can be broken?

Unlikely in Beijing's hot and humid conditions. But Wang and others are sure it will go one day.

"Humanity never stops developing, progressing. Conditions get better all the time," Wang said.

Can the current generation of runners do it?

"Uhhhh, I don't know about that. Obviously, they all go at some point, for the most part," said Kim Keenan-Kirkpatrick, women's distance coach on the U.S. Olympic squad.

IAAF chief Lamine Diack says he's ready to scrap records up to three decades old if athletes who set them admit that they doped.

That hasn't happened in Wang's case, and with no evidence of foul-play, the record stays.

What other alternatives are there?

"There's always maybe speculation when someone has an incredible performance and I just think that until someone has proof or evidence of any type of wrongdoing, records are records and they stand as they stand," Keenan-Kirkpatrick said. "There's been testing in place for years, so if nothing is proven to question that record then there shouldn't be speculation about its validity."

Wang says she proud of the - perhaps indelible - mark that she left.

"I think I was amazing," she said. "My friends joke that I was an alien, with special powers."


John Leicester is an Olympics columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicesterap.org