In less than a week, Chinese women runners have made a shambles of track and field's established standards by setting four world records.
Some would say they have also made a mockery of the sport.
"If they ratify these records, it will set women's middle distance and distance running back 25 years," said Mary Slaney of Eugene, Ore., the greatest middle-distance runner in U.S. history. "It will ruin the sport."
The most recent record came yesterday, when Wang Junxia ran the 3,000 meters in 8 minutes, 6.11 seconds in the 7th National Games at Beijing's Workers Stadium.
That was six seconds faster than the record of 8:12.19 Wang set in Sunday's preliminaries, when she took 10 seconds off the 9-year-old record of 8:22.62 set by Tatiana Kazankina of the Soviet Union.
Last Wednesday, Wang, 20, broke the 7-year-old world record in the 10,000 meters by 42 seconds. In Saturday's 1,500, both Wang, the runner-up, and Qu Yunxia, the winner, broke the oldest record in women's track and field, which had stood 13 years.
That meant Wang had run under the old world records four times in three events in six days. If legitimate, it would be the greatest concerted multiple-event performance in the history of distance running.
Meanwhile Qu, 20, was second in yesterday's 3,000, which was run in 82-degree temperatures, with a time of 8:12.17.
"I would love to jump up and down and say, 'Fabulous!' but to smash those records by that much, it needs investigation," said PattiSue Plumer of Menlo Park, Calif., a lawyer and the top-ranked U.S. runner in the 3,000 meters from 1989 to 1992.
The International Amateur Athletic Federation, the governing body of world track and field, will review the performances when it receives record applications from the Chinese. Each application must include a doping test result from a urine sample provided by the athlete immediately after setting the record.
"I believe they are doing something chemically and that the results are not legal somehow," said Slaney, who once held U.S. records from 800 to 10,000 meters, set over a four-year period.
Countered runners agent Tom Sturak: "No one ever says these things about Kenya's men (who dominate men's distance running). I think the Chinese, like the Kenyans, are succeeding for cultural reasons. I think these times are legitimate."
For the five years between the 1988 Olympics and these Chinese National Games, only one world record was set in women's track and field events that have been on the Olympic program. Eight world records had been set in 1988, after which the battle against doping was intensified worldwide.
Now, four records have been set in six days by two Chinese women distance runners, one of whom, Wang, has improved a staggering amount in one season. And, in Sunday's heats of the 3,000, five Chinese women bettered the old world record.
"If these suspicions aren't cleared up, it's a big problem for the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee," said Ollan Cassell, executive director of USA Track & Field.
The doubts have been created because China's sudden burst of brilliance defies all the sport's previously established norms of progression to better performances. It makes the rest of the world's best women runners non-competitive against the Chinese.
"This is the sort of entry of the Chinese into the international scene that has been expected for a long time," said Arne Ljungqvist of Sweden, head of the IAAF's medical commission.
"There is no basis to claim these are improvements beyond what one can believe. It is unworthy to find drug abuse and abuse of the system as an explanation for why the Chinese run so fast. Throwing around such suspicions poisons the atmosphere of the sport."
The IAAF has sent four "flying squads" to perform unannounced, out-of-competition doping controls in China over the past 28 months. There were three positives among 50 athletes tested, a relatively high percentage of a small sampling.
Ma Zunren, who coaches all the top women runners in Liaoning Province (formerly Manchuria), has reacted angrily to charges of illegal methods. He said that the only "magic" involved was an herbal medicine made from worms but that the main factors were intense work and sophisticated training, including study of the locomotion of deer and ostriches.
"Why aren't their men eating those worms?" Slaney asked.
Doping experts note that steroid use has a more dramatic effect on female athletes. The Chinese say that their women simply train much harder than the men.
Ma said his runners consistently do the equivalent of a daily marathon (26.2 miles) in training. To those who claim that such a training load is impossible, cultural anthropologist and athlete Susan Brownell answers, "Chinese women will endure tremendous pain in sport because it is one of the few areas where they can express themselves in the culture."