Saturday 24 March 2018

Top Chinese gymnast found begging on the street

Malcolm Moore

One of China's most promising young gymnasts, who seemed destined for Olympic glory before his career ended in injury, has been found begging on the streets of Beijing, prompting criticism of the country's Soviet-style sports system.

Zhang Shangwu, 28, a specialist on the still rings, had even sold the two gold medals he won at the World University championships in 2001 for just £10 in order to buy food.

Mr Zhang said there were others like him who had found themselves in a desperate situation after being cut loose from China's state-run sports system.

Speaking on a mobile phone he bought for 30 yuan (£2.90) in order to find work, Mr Zhang said he had received a phone call recently from another struggling gymnast.

"He thought I might draw some attention to the problem. But I can barely look after myself at the moment, let alone take on anyone else's worries," he said.

Born into a peasant family in Baoding, Hebei province, Mr Zhang was sent to a local gymnastics academy at the age of five. After seven years of gruelling training, he showed enough promise to be selected to China's national team and in 2001 he was entered by officials into the World University Games, despite not having an education outside his sport.

His gold medal-winning performance was the highlight of his career, and he seemed certain to make the cut for the 2004 Athens Olympics until he broke his left Achilles tendon in training in 2002.

He never fully recovered, missed the games, and in 2005 he retired with a 38,000 yuan (£3,650) pay-off from the government in his home province of Hebei. "The money meant the local team no longer had to take any liability for my future," he said.

"After I left the sports system, I got a job as a food delivery boy, but after a while my injury got worse and worse so eventually I couldn't run or even walk for long periods".

His savings were wiped out, he said, when his grandfather had a brain haemorrhage. "That used up all my remaining money, and then I was forced to sell my medals because I did not have any money for food."

Shortly afterwards, in 2007, he turned to theft and was arrested in Beijing, only being released in April this year. "Since I got out, I have been begging and I was sleeping overnight in an internet café," he said.

Mr Zhang's situation has shocked China, which spares no effort in honouring the winners of Olympic gold medals, showering them and their families with gifts. Critics said that it was unacceptable for the majority of athletes, who retire in anonymity, to be left in difficult circumstances.

Xing Aowei, a former team-mate of Mr Zhang and a winner at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, told a Chinese website that he was concerned about the impact his story would have on gymnastics.

"With a world champion descending into such a life, who would want to be a gymnast in the future?" he asked.

Other Chinese sportsmen have also struggled after leaving the protective blanket of the national team. Ai Dongmei, a former marathon champion, sold the 10 medals she had won in international competitions in order to support her family after her husband was laid off. Zou Chunlan, the national female weightlifting champion, worked at a public bathhouse as a masseuse.

Mr Zhang said he was now living in a hotel paid for by a Chinese newspaper and was happy to accept charity until he finds himself a stable job.

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