No Iron Rice Bowl for China's Athletes

In the same week that China's Yao Ming landed in Shanghai to announce his retirement from the NBA, China's former "key athlete," Zhang Shangwu, was found begging in a Beijing subway station.

At 5, Zhang Shangwu was shipped off to a training camp for Chinese athletes, to be forged into a top competitor on the still rings. In 2001, the Hebei native was chosen to represent China in the World University Games although he had no formal education off the gym mats. Zhang walked away from the Universiade with two gold medals and entered the government limelight – a shoo-in for the 2004 Athens Olympics. But in 2003, Zhang snapped his Achilles' tendon, shattering any hopes of competing the following year.

Two years later, the local athletic administration realized Zhang would never make a full recovery. Doling out a 38,000 yuan (US$5,890) payment to remove any liability, the provincial government sent Zhang packing with no skills and no education.

With few employable skills, Zhang Shangwu worked odd jobs, including a short stint as a delivery person, which further aggravated his injury. Zhang's grandfather suffered a brain hemorrhage that drained the family of their savings. “My grandfather suffers from cerebral thrombus and has involuntary passage of urine and stool, but we have no money,” Zhang says. Broke and without skills, the former athlete sold his two gold medals for 100 yuan (US$15) to buy food, later turning to theft that twice led to his arrest.

On July 27, according to the South China Morning Post, Zhang was finally rescued by Chen Guangbiao, a Jiangsu-based recuycling tycoon after publicity appeared describing him as begging in the streets. According ot the SCMP story, Zhang is to become Chen's physical fitness instructure and to train staff at Chen's Jiangsu Huangpu Recycling Resources Company.

Zhang's former plight isn't a solitary case. In China, although his rescue might be. Athletes are pushed to win honors for the country, the government programs for them are devoid of proper social assistance for the athletes when they break.

Zou Chunlan was trained to be a professional weightlifter at the age of 14, chalking up a career that saw her on the podium more than 10 times – including nine gold medals. In 1988, she broke both jerk- and clean-lift world records. After an injury in the 7th National Games, Zou was sidelined with a payout of just 80,000 yuan (US$12,400) for her years of coerced commitment.

With mounting medical expenses to treat the effects of performance enhancing drugs she was given, the compensation quickly dried up. She now lives with her husband in a 5-square meter room inside a public bathhouse in Changchun. She gives rubdowns to customers for 1.5 yuan (US$0.23) per customer and subsists on meals of rice and cabbage. The former world champion still struggles with the after-effects of drugs her coach claimed were nutritional supplements – they were androgen, the original form of anabolic steroids. In 2001, she was told she had higher male hormone levels than most men, robbing her of her dream to ever have a child.

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Yet the government touts efforts to help retired athletes – in 2010 it was widely reported in national media that 13 ex-champions, still in their 20s, received scholarships to overseas universities under an international exchange agreement. But 3,000 to 6,000 injured and unskilled athletes enter retirement each year (recent estimates place the total number at around 300,000 ex-athletes in China). As for the college entrant recipients, there's little hope that these non-degree programs will lead anywhere for these students, who have been given no other education.

The list of athletes goes on. Ai Dongmei, the former Beijing Marathon champion had her earnings embezzled by her coach (who also beat her regularly during training), and was eventually forced into retirement with little compensation and crippled feet from severe over-training. After years of grueling training in a national sports camp, even after being diagnosed with diabetes, former skiing champion Zhao Yonghua is now bedridden with no compensation for her medical expenses and unable to afford treatment.

China Sports Daily places 80 percent of the country’s 300,000 retired athletes as jobless, injured or impoverished.

While Chinese media speculate on how Yao Ming will spend his shining future (coach, businessman or student...), his former main competition at the national training camp, Huang Chengyi is paralyzed from an injury while training. Huang lives in an abandoned hut on a construction site, getting by on the earnings scratched together by his trash-collecting mother.

Susan Brownell, a sports anthropologist from the University of Missouri who has worked in China, told NPR.org that with so much invested in an athlete’s financial future, it’s not so different from the Chinese parent-child relationship, “When that child has some success, they owe their parents some payback.” Even Yao Ming has forked over millions of his earnings in the NBA back to the sports federation that trained him.

This means any serious commitment of social support to the country’s abandoned sports stars is unlikely. China sees little delineation between its athletes and investments, Brownell concludes, “they belong to the state.”