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|August 28, 2000||
Tough love and turtle soup is Ma's recipeJeremy Page in Duoba, China
Barking curses into the thin air of the Tibetan plateau at a midnight training session, China's tempestuous track coach Ma Junren whips new recruits to his "Ma family army" into shape.
Six years after a mutiny by his original squad of world record-beating women runners, the man famed for his temper tantrums, turtle blood tonics and high altitude training is back with his eyes set on Olympic gold in Sydney.
Whether Ma can stun the world again by transforming unknown Chinese peasant women into champion athletes on a steady diet of pain, insults and spartan living is a question consuming Chinese sports fans in the run-up to the Sydney Games.
"Get your feet moving!," he growled as his team of middle and long distance runners notched up their 20th lap at a remote training camp more than 2,000 metres above sea level on the Tibetan plateau in western China.
"You're not even sweating yet! Call this a workout?"
As the echo of Ma's gravelly voice fades away, the only sound is the soft panting of a cluster of silhouettes relentlessly circling the running track under a pallid moon.
A stout figure in a tweed jacket and white running shoes, Ma puffs heavily on a gleaming cigarette holder and scowls at his stopwatch while a retinue of trainers and local journalists watch from a respectful distance.
Despite years of criticism in state media and public rifts with sports officials, the return of the man who brought China international sporting glory and one of its best living soap operas has sent a frisson of excitement across the nation.
"Ma is under a lot of pressure," whispered Song Zhiyuan, a manager at the Duoba Plateau Sports Training Base in the remote western province of Qinghai, as he watched Ma marshal his troops.
"Everybody has such high expectations. He is determined to win gold.""
But his young and inexperienced charges have yet to prove they can live up to the original Ma Army's dramatic coups in 1993.
That year, his team of unknown peasant women from the northeastern province of Liaoning swept all three medals in the 5,000 metres and took gold and silver in the 10,000 metres at the Stuttgart world championships.
Just a month later, they shattered three world records at the Chinese national championships, with Wang Junxia shaving an astonishing 42 seconds off the 10,000 metres world record and 16.5 seconds off the 3,000 metres mark.
Ma vigorously denied allegations his runners were fuelled by banned drugs and famously attributed their stunning times to high altitude training and traditional tonics of turtle's blood and caterpillar fungus.
But the taste of victory turned sour when Wang led a walkout from Ma's training camp, accusing him of stealing team winnings, including three Mercedes cars, and abusing athletes.
Ma admitted he sometimes beat athletes when they were lazy or disobedient and looked after their winnings "for their own good".
Chinese media turned on him, branding his methods cruel and his health potions a sham.
Yet Ma, it appears, is relying on the same formula to win Olympic glory this year.
With a month to go before Sydney, he drove his runners 2,000 km across China to Duoba, making his team run at each stop to adjust to the altitude.
"Training at altitude is good for the body -- it improves oxygen absorption and stamina, plus there's no pollution," he said in a brief lull during training.
"But you have to take it easy training at altitude."
Try telling that to the athletes.
Their daily routine at Duoba includes morning and night-time running sessions of two hours each -- the equivalent of more than a marathon a day -- at an altitude where walking a few yards makes most people breathless.
Evening sessions often drift late into the night as Ma tries to make his runners adjust to late race schedules in Sydney.
For the next few weeks they will be confined to the camp with no days off and nourished on a special diet.
"Ma's army eat different stuff from the other athletes," said a cook, who declined to give his name, as he plucked a brace of pigeon for their evening meal.
"We have to prepare special meals because they have special needs," he said. "After all they are our best hope for Olympic gold."
Turtle's blood was off the menu, he said, but plain turtle soup was a daily staple.
Ma makes no apologies for his tough-love training tactics.
"You've got be harsh to be kind and get results. You mustn't be afraid of falling out with athletes," he instructed fellow coaches by the Duoba track. "If you don't make strict demands, how can they train themselves?
"A car will not start without being pushed. Nobody ever became world champion by being doted on.
"Wang Junxia complained and I wasn't afraid to fall out with her," he said. "If I hadn't, would she have broken the world record?"
But Wang's mutiny almost marked the end of Ma's career.
While she went on to win the 5,000 metres gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics under a new coach, Ma crashed one of the prize Mercedes and was later put in hospital with stomach problems.
He staged a brief, sensational comeback at China's 1997 national games when protege Jiang Bo smashed the women's 5,000 metres world record by more than eight seconds.
However, sports authorities lost their patience when he refused to participate in official qualifying events for the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok.
They excluded his runners from the national team and Ma disappeared, his career apparently in ruins.
But when Chinese athletes failed to perform in Bangkok, state media were soon baying for his return.
Suddenly Ma was back in business and back to his old ways.
While his rocky relationship with sports authorities appears to be on the mend, Ma proved at national Olympic trials in June he had not lost his fiery temper.
He flew into a rage ater his team failed to win the women's 800 metres gold, blaming the defeat on doping tests which took six hours to complete.
But Ma's army dominated other distance events at the meet, taking golds in the 1,500 metres, 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres.
The team also took won one race and took two second places at the Paris golden league meeting the same month.
Ma is expected to take seven runners to Sydney to compete in the 1,500 metres, 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres. The hot favourite for an Olympic gold is Dong Yanmei in the 5,000 metres.
Yet in contrast to his bluff former self, Ma has been subdued when talking of his Olympic prospects.
"We saw so many good runners on our European trip that winning a gold will be hard for us," state media quoted him as saying. "We got to know our position in the world on that trip."
"I know the whole country expects us to win a gold medal at the Olympics, but this is very difficult."
Other China-related Olympic stories:
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