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Olympic Hero Makes a Splash in Retirement
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Sitting on a big sofa in a newly-decorated office at the Hunan Provincial Sports Administration (HPSA) in Changsha, Xiong Ni, a triple Olympic diving gold medalist, is deep in conversation with a local businessman about future sponsorship.

Life couldn't be better for 32-year-old Xiong, especially as he doesn't have to step onto the daunting 10-meter platform or watch the every move of his arch-rival from Russia, Dmitri Sautin.

The former diver is the new vice-director of the HPSA, and his success is opening a new door for thousands of Chinese athletes.

"I think I am changing people's views about our athletes," said Xiong. "Some think we have 'strong bodies, empty heads', so I work hard to improve myself. I spent 20 years learning to be a great diver, and now I want to be a good sports official."

One of the most recognized athletes in China, Xiong dominated the diving world in a 13-year career in which he won three gold medals at four Olympic Games.

Xiong won bronze in 10m platform in Barcelona in 1992. He took a short break from the national team following the Atlanta Games in 1996, when he won China its first ever 3m springboard gold, before coming back at the Sydney Games in 2000 to clinch his last two Olympic gold medals in springboard singles and synchronized.

He retired after the Sydney Games, and became a low-ranking official on the Hunan provincial swimming team. He worked his way up the ladder, and in 2004 was named principal of Hunan Sports College, home to the province's professional athletes.

Xiong made a major impact in his new job. He helped Hunan win its first gold medals in wrestling, swimming and diving at the Tenth National Games in 2005, and 11 of his athletes pocketed golds at the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar last December.

"I'm with the athletes all day long. I know how they feel because I was in that situation a few years ago. They believe in me so it is easier to communicate with them," Xiong said.

Like his three Olympic gold medals, success as a sports official did not come easily.

His appointment as principal of the college was widely criticized due to his lack of experience. Some even claimed that he was "living on his fame", as most retired athletes lack education and struggle to find work in retirement.

Adding to the bleak picture, the college was six million yuan ($769,000) in debt when he took over.

"I think it was a great honor to be named a sports official right after retirement. A job like this is the best an athlete can hope for," he said. "The rest of my teammates just received a small sum of money from their sports administration and left. Some of them are now unemployed. 

"But when I started my post in the college, it was totally different from what I thought. Managing 14 pro teams and 3,000 employees was a major headache for me."

The diving champion was sent to Yiyang, another city in Hunan, to study sports management, but he found a better way to kick-start his struggling college - using his name.

"It took me some time to realize my world champion status is worth a fortune," he said. "There was a time when I frequently went to various companies asking for sponsorship. I was very surprised that it wasn't that hard for me and my college to get money."

Xiong raised enough money from local companies to pay off the college's debts, and now it has revenues of 10 million yuan each year and employee bonuses have doubled.

Officials at the HPSA noticed his good work, and last month he took up his new job as vice-director.

HPSA director Fu Guoliang believes retired athletes are a key force in sports management.

"They have first-hand experience in sports and they understand the players. That's very important for sports development," he said. "I think it's very effective to draft some of them into the leading posts just like Xiong. We all see he has done a great job.

"Xiong is already role model for the other athletes, and he makes them believe they can be successful in retirement."

Alongside Xiong, 60 percent of sports officials in Hunan are retired athletes. Badminton world champions Gong Zhichao and Tang Jiuhong and Olympic weighlifting gold medalist Yang Xia are part of a set-up that has helped lift the province from bottom of the National Games 10 years ago to top ten finishes at the last two editions.

Retired athletes are even making their presence felt at the top levels of Chinese sport.

For example Sun Jinfang, a multiple world titlist in volleyball, is now guiding Chinese women's tennis to unprecedented success in her role as director of the Tennis Administrative Center.

With an Olympic gold and two grand slam titles during her tenure, it is clear that the players are responding to Sun.

"We have a lot of things in common, because she was one of the most popular players in China," said Australian and Wimbledon Open doubles' winner Zheng Jie. "She is very very strict with us, but I want to listen to her and do what she wants us to do."

"She really cares about us, from prize money to our drinking water during the tournament. It's comfortable being with her." 

(China Daily February 28, 2007)

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