Wang Junxia: First Chinese Olympic Champ to enter the Hall of Fame | Sunday Observer

Wang Junxia: First Chinese Olympic Champ to enter the Hall of Fame

16 January, 2022
Wang Junxia takes part in jogging in Wuhan in 2006-Victory Lap after winning the Olympic Title at Atlanta 1996
Wang Junxia takes part in jogging in Wuhan in 2006-Victory Lap after winning the Olympic Title at Atlanta 1996

The Chinese Olympic champion Wang Junxia, ​​​​widely known as the “Divine Deer of the Orient,” is undoubtedly a big star in track and field. She made the world aware of the explosive power she owned and left an indelible mark in the history of Chinese sports. She is the first Chinese to win an Olympic gold medal in the long distance running. She is among the first twelve athletes inducted in the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) Hall of Fame in 2012.

Wang Junxia dominated the scene on the track becoming the most outstanding Chinese track superstar in the 1990s. She became the Olympic Games 5000 meters champion and 10,000 meters runner-up at Atlanta 1996 Summer Games. She also won the 10,000 meters title at the 1993 World Championship in Stuttgart. At the 1993 Beijing National Games, Wang Junxia broke the 3,000 meters world record twice in the heats and the final on successive days.

Her world record has remained unchallenged for 28 long years up to now and thus, she is the current world record holder at 3,000 meters. She also held the world record for the 10,000 meters for 23 years, between 1993 and 2016. Her best years on the track lay between 1991 and 1996. Wang was coached by Ma Junren until 1995 and by Mao Dezhen from 1995 to her retirement after the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics.

Birth and Early Years

Wang Junxia was born in a poor family in Jiaohe, Jilinin China on January 19, 1973. She has shown her love for sports since she was a child, especially track and field, and she was very talented. She participated in the National Urban Games when she was 18 years. After winning a gold medal in the 10,000m at the 1992 IAAF World Junior Championships in Seoul, Korea, beating Ethiopian Gete Wami with a time of 32:29.90.

Wang made her entry to senior level with sensational results in just a year. She first came to prominence in April 1993 when she set a world-leading time and former Asian best in the marathon clocking 2:24.07 in Tianjin before switching her attention to the track.

Wang transcended even that notable achievement a few weeks later with a series of remarkable performances on home soil. In May, she broke the Asian record of 3000m in a fast time of 8:27.68 at the Chinese National Games in Beijing. Then, she won the 10,000m at the 1993 IAAF World Championships in Stuttgart in 30:49.30, despite claiming to have been sick before the race.

At the world championships, Chinese women distance runners under coach Ma Junren stunned the world and swept the world titles from 1500m to 10,000m in Stuttgart. It can be said that in the Chinese team, Wang Junxia was the hardest and most diligent one. She also won the World Cup Marathon Championships later in the year.

Four World Records in 6 Days

“Yes, I remember,” she finally said in an interview to mark the 10th anniversary in 2003. 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 events at the Stuttgart World Athletic Championships. Among the dazzling feats, Wang claimed the 10,000-meter trophy.

One month later in Beijing, stunned the world again with a world record time of 29:31.78 in the 10,000-meter final at the National Games, becoming the first woman to cover the distance in less than 30 minutes. The heroics were just beginning and she was only 20.

In the following days, Wang improved the 3,000m world record twice and the 1500m world record. Along with 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 said, playing down the achievements.

On September 8, 1993, Wang won the 10,000m final in a world record of 29:31.78, which bettered the former record of 30:13.74 held by Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway since July 5, 1986 by 42 seconds and was also the first-ever sub-30-minute performance in this event. She was only 20.

In the subsequent two decades, no one has got within 22 seconds of that time. The 10,000 record of Wang would remain on the record books as the world record until the Rio 2016 Olympics when it was bettered by Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia on August 12, 2016.

On September 11, 1993 she finished second in 1500m behind her teammate, Qu Yunxia in another world record breaking race. Qu ran 3:50.46 (world record at the time) against Wang’s 3:51.92. Four years later, Bo Jiang and Yinglai Lang ran slightly faster than Wang in the same race. Qu’s record remained on the books until it was finally beaten by Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia when she ran 3:50.07 at the Herculis meet in Monaco on July 15, 2015. Wang is currently fifth on the all-time list.

In 3000m heats on September 12, 1993 Wang’s teammate, Zhang Linli broke the 3000m world record in the first heat clocking 8:22.06. This world record was just briefly held, when it was erased by Wang in the second heat with a time of 8:12.19. Then, she won the final held on the following day, September 13, 1993 with a new world record of 8:06.11.

Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games

In 1994, she was awarded the Jesse Owens prize on the remarkable performances in 1993. She was the first and only Chinese and Asian to win the prestigious prize. She won the Asian Games in 10,000m with a world-leading time of 30:50.34 later in the year in Hiroshima. In 1994 and 1995, she struggled with a hip injury brought on by her arduous training regime.

In 1995, Wang and her teammates broke up with their coach Ma due to prize money and his harsh coaching style. After a short period of training on their own without a major success, Wang started to train under coach Mao Dezhen to prepare for the 1996 Olympics. In Nanjing, she announced a comeback in the Olympics Trials, where she ran quality times in both 5000m and 10,000m.

Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, took place from July 19 to August 4, 1996. The Atlanta Summer Olympic Games were the 23rd occurrence of the modern Olympic Games. Boosted by the selection over Athens to host the Centennial Summer Games, Atlanta staged one of the most extravagant Summer Games in the Olympic history.

For the first time, all National Olympic Committees (NOCs) were invited to compete and a record 197 NOCs sent more than 10,000 athletes. The number of events reached 271 and standout at the Atlanta Olympic Games was Carl Lewis of the United States, who won his ninth gold medal in track and field.

At the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics, Wang returned to the top again when she was victorious in the new Summer Olympic event, women’s 5000m with a time of 14:59.88, becoming China’s first Olympic gold medalist in a long-distance track event. She also secured the silver medal in the 10,000m in Atlanta in 31:02.58, just a second behind Portuguese Fernanda Ribeiro.

Ribeiro made a heroic final lap kick that surprised Wang and perhaps because she was not used to being challenged, she was unable to react to it. In fact, not only did both women’s performances better the previous Olympic record in the 10,000m, they ran it in such high temperatures that officials were handing out cups of water in the middle of the race, like in a marathon.

A decade after achievements

The Guardian reported in 2001 that Wang was living anonymously in Beijing. However, she was dashing after various other interests. “Jogging is simply part of my life. I still run, but not for gold medals or world records - just for health and happiness.”

She talked 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.“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 were 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 24. 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 said.

“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 said. “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.

Though Ma, then 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. 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. Wang was the only Chinese athlete to repeat her 1993 successes at the 1996 Olympics, under Coach Ma, though Qu had managed a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics.

However, there were doping allegations. Yuan Weimin, former Director General of the State General Administration of Sports and Chairperson of the Chinese Olympic Committee, had confirmed in 2009 in his book that six athletes by her former coach Ma Junren were dropped from the 2000 Summer Olympics because they were tested positive for doping. Coach Ma was also fired from the Chinese national team in 2000.

In 2016, Tencent Sports exclusively published a March 1995 letter reportedly from Wang and nine other athletes under Ma’s tutelage. In it, they alleged Coach Ma forced them to dope. Zhao Yu, the investigative author who had received the letter, said Wang and others came forward because Coach Ma had told them to take personal responsibilities, should they get caught. The letter was initially published in 2015 in Zhao’s book, but only gained traction in February 2016.

In 1994, 11 members of the Chinese swimming and cycling teams, winners of a total of 15 titles between them at the Hiroshima 1994 Asian Games, were disqualified after failing tests for Dihydrotestosterone, an anabolic steroid.

At present, action regarding the records and performances will be limited by the statute of limitations having passed, although action can be taken if there is an admission of guilt. In this respect, the IAAF will request the Chinese Athletics Association to assist the process.

Personal Life

Soon after the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, Wang retired from the track. She entered 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.

Wang Junxia and the football player Yuzhan registered their marriage in 1997 and held an official wedding in 2001. During Wang Junxia and Yuzhan’s marriage, she always felt that she was singing a one-man show. Whenever she and her husband chatted about interesting stories in life happily, the husband was either silent or just answered two sentences. The atmosphere at home was too dull and serious. After 2006, they divorced, Wang Junxia is almost a family member, and they have a son.

Later, she moved to the United States, where she met Huang Tianwen, a Chinese-American. This marriage is called “terrorist marriage.” Huang Tianwen is a famous music producer, and they had a daughter after marriage. Huang Tianwen has a strong desire for control. During this marriage, Wang Junxia couldn’t even use a mobile phone. She struggled and finally couldn’t bear it, and divorced Huang Tianwen in 2013.

In June 2015, Wang Junxia married the third husband Li Huiyang and chose to spend the rest of her life with him. Although she is in her forties, she is still energetic. She often teaches you running knowledge and sports suitable for family exercise on the Internet. Sports champion Wang Junxia has three children and three dads. She has been hurt as much as she can and her life is very happy now.

(The author is the winner of Presidential Awards for Sports and recipient of multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. He can be reached at [email protected])