Zhang Shangwu and other Chinese Athletes

In the wake of China’s success at the FINA Championships in Shanghai, a number of new stories have come out regarding the Chinese Sport System and the long term care (or lack of it) for retired or not-so-successful athletes. Here are two stories from the SCMP and China Daily that are good updates on what I wrote about the Chinese Sport Schools System.

From the SCMP

The plight of a 28-year-old former world champion gymnast battling poverty, injury and unemployment has put the spotlight on the mainland’s system of producing top athletes.
Zhang Shangwu , who won two gold medals in the rings and team events at the 2001 World University Games in Beijing, has lived by begging in the city’s subway stations since his release in April from a four-year jail term for theft. Local media publicised his situation last week.

Zhang’s sports experience, the reports say, reflect the fate of thousands of young people who throw themselves full-time into an arduous training programme from childhood, thinking of nothing else but winning a gold medal at the Olympics.

Born to a penniless family in Baoding , Hebei province, Zhang was sent to a local sports school to practise gymnastics at the age of five, starting a long, semi-military training regime. Seven years later he was selected for the national gymnastics team. In 2001, national team leaders told him to pass himself off as a university student so that he could attend the World University Games, he told Beijing News.

His sports career was halted after he broke his left Achilles tendon while training in January 2002. He failed to make selection for the Olympic team that went to Athens in 2004 and was downgraded to the Hebei provincial gymnastics team. Three years later he retired.

Zhang said at the provincial team he had disputes with his coach who ordered him to do difficult exercises and neglected his foot injury. Team officials also opposed his application to study academic subjects at a local sports school, he said.

In June 2005, when he retired from the Hebei team, he received 38,000 yuan (HK$45,800) as compensation and pension. Zhang complained about the amount; some Hebei officials told domestic media that he received 60,000 yuan in accordance with state regulations, and based on an athlete’s achievements.

For winners of Olympic gold medals, Beijing spares no effort in conferring upon them honours and material rewards. However, these are just a very few. The majority of athletes, who retire in anonymity, are left to fend for themselves.

Zhang said at first he thought of taking up studies and talked with staff at Beijing Sport University, which he never attended but represented at the 2001 university games.

Staff told him: “You think having once represented us means that you can be enrolled by us?”

After this rejection, he said he was frustrated by his repeated failure to find a job because of his poor education and injuries that prevented him from taking on labouring work. Also, he is only 1.52 metres tall.

In 2007, stricken by poverty, Zhang sold his two gold medals, for 60 yuan and 50 yuan respectively. In July of that year he was arrested for stealing in Beijing. After he was released from prison in April he begged in Shijiazhuang, saying that his aim was to collect money for his ailing grandfather.

He now earns less than 100 yuan a day, from begging and doing street performances.

Zhang’s plight is similar to that of other sporting heroes. Former marathon champion Ai Dongmei sold medals she won in international competition, including a gold one for which she received just 1,000 yuan, to support her family in Heilongjiang after her husband was laid off from his job. National weightlifting champion Zou Chunlan became a masseuse at a public bathhouse in Jilin .

Gao Min , Olympic diving champion in 1988 and 1992, wrote on her blog page yesterday that some of her former teammates did not have a good life, either, and hoped the authorities would introduce policies to support them.

Jin Shan , director of the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences’ sport culture institute, said these tragedies exposed a big gap in the mainland’s sports regime. Young children were deprived of an education in order to become professional athletes, but had few or no skills when they needed to re-enter conventional society.

“Zhang’s tragedy serves as a warning to parents who send their children to sports schools and expect them to be the next Liu Xiang or Yao Ming ,” he said.

Xing Aowei , a former teammate of Zhang and a champion at the 2000 Olympics, told Sohu.com that he was concerned about Zhang’s situation and the impact his story would have on gymnastics. Xing, who is the national gymnastics team coach, said: “With a world champion descending into such a life, who will participate in gymnastics in the future?”

And China Daily

27-year-old Zhang Shangwu was a shining gymnastics star at the age of 18, when he won two gold medals at the 2001 Beijing Universiade. However, his gymnastics career came to a halt in 2003 when he suffered a tendon injury, and failed to be elected to China’s gymnastics team for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.

After that, the gymnast’s life took a downward turn. In 2007, Zhang gained notoriety with a series of thefts that led to his incarceration in 2007. After his release this year after serving a four-year sentence, a penniless Zhang started begging and performing gymnastics stunts on the street in Beijing to earn a living.

Zhang’s situation refocused media attention on the dire financial straits of many former Chinese athletes, and the hardships they are now enduring due to a lack of education and job training skills.

Ai Dongmei, winner of the Beijing International Marathon in 1999, was forced to sell her medals after she and her husband were laid off in 2007. National weightlifting champion Zou Chunlan became a masseuse in a public bathhouse in 2006 when she retired and fell into financial difficulty. She made less than 2 yuan per customer.

Under the current system, athletes are removed from school and relocated to an official training facility, where they only focus on athletics. This has proven effective in cultivating Olympic champions. However, the lack of a traditional education, combined with isolation from the outside world has caused many athletes to suffer difficulties when they try to lead normal lives after retirement.

Of some 300,000 retired athletes, 80 percent were battling injury, poverty and unemployment, the China Sports Daily newspaper said.

The government has instituted policies in recent years to try to improve the situation. However, the problem can only be eliminated when athletic training and education are combined in athletes’ regimens. China’s sports program should take a few lessons from the US, which makes sure that athletes engaged in competitive sports also have the chance to receive an education during their training.

China is already an international sports powerhouse in terms of the number of Olympic medals it has won. Now we must ensure athletes have the tools to compete well after their last competitive match.