1990s Wang Junxia of China dominated the world of female distance running. She and her teammates from Ma Junren’s ‘Family Army’ burst onto the scene at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993 with a series of brilliant performances.
Later that year the squad rewrote the record books with a series of World records, including Wang’s in the 3000 and 10,000 metres. But the following year Wang led a revolt against their controversial coach and they went their separate ways.
Most predicted that we would never see Wang again but she defied her critics in 1996 when, amid much national rejoicing, she re-emerged to claim the gold and silver medals in the 5000 and 10,000m respectively at the Olympics in Atlanta.
After she turned up for a couple of lucrative road races in the United States and then she did more-or-less disappear.
New life and career - film acting
Little had been heard of Wang outside China until last week when she visited London to promote a new film she is appearing in. Despite its title, ‘Running for Son’, the movie is nothing to do with athletics but about how Wang’s fictional character battles to keep her adopted child.
The director gave Wang the part in the film following the birth of her own son, Zhan Yibo, three years ago.
“It was not as difficult as I imagined,” she said. “I think the character really suited me?”
Expensively dressed in a purple sweater, designer trousers and trendy heels the slim-looking Wang could still easily still pass for an elite athlete. Now 31, Wang is clearly happy, living in Shenyang, an ancient city 400 miles north east of Beijing.
A marathon-a-day regime
But Wang recalls that the legacy of the history she created on the track will live with her forever.
”I still suffer from constant headaches because I trained so hard,” she said. “When I was running they could last for months disrupting my training before they went away. Then when I trained hard again they would come back.”
Ma’s torturous training regime included running a marathon a day at high altitude and he did not accept illness or injury as an excuse for failing to complete it.
”He did not think I could be his best runner because I was always sick,” said Wang.
Wang fled Ma’s regime in 1994 following a row over prize. Time has healed Wang's bitterness.
”I always feel gratitude to him,” she said. “...he wanted what was best for me.”
Pushing the boundaries
Wang’s international career was relatively brief, spanning a period of only four years but her achievements are among the most immense in history. She clipped 42 seconds off Norwegian Ingrid Kristiansen’s 10,000m World record and only Paula Radcliffe of Britain has come within 30 seconds of her mark of 29:31.78.
At the same meeting in the Chinese National Games, Wang also broke the 3000m record by 16.5 seconds to establish figures of 8:06.11 that are also seemingly invincible.
”No one knows, but I only ran to fast to beat a girl from another province,” revealed Wang. ”I was going to have an easy race, but no one from my team could beat this girl so I must run fast. That is how fate decided the record.”
The physical toll extracted by Wang during her career means that she if she runs now it is only for recreational purposes.
“My doctor told what I needed was complete rest,” she said. “My doctor said it was my body crying for help, a cry of pain. After all the years of running to my extremes it could not take any more, it could not cope, it was exhaustion.”
”Now I am fine, but if I run it is only for half-an-hour. If I want to do more, I do more” but I decide.”
”Jogging is simply part of my life. I still run, but not for gold medals or World records - just for health and happiness.”