China's sports program shouldn't just focus on winning medals; it must give athletes the tools to live normal lives after retirement.
Zhang Shangwu, a former champion gymnast, displays some of his gold medals in Wangfujing on Friday. The 27-year-old has been making a living as a performer and beggar after leaving the national team because of injury. Cai Yongjun / for 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.
The author is a journalist with Xinhua News Agency.
(The article was written in Chinese and translated by An Wei.)