Ex-World Champion Gymnast Begs at Beijing Subway
IT IS THE heart-wrenching, agonizing story of an ex-world champion gymnast
that reminds us of the recurring tragedy of Chinese athletes.
He was once the symbol of glory for China. He trained around the clock since
age five to make a better life for himself. After garnering two gold medals at
the 2001 Universaide in Beijing, he was set to shine at the 2004 Olympic Games
Yet a decade later, the once-distinguished star sleeps at Internet cafes, on
bridges, or outside hospitals or grocery stores at night, and begs as a street
entertainer during the day.
Zhang Shangwu dedicated his whole life to gymnastics, sacrificing his
education, childhood, and normal life for around-the-clock training. He did a
good job: He made it to the China’s national gymnastics team at age 12 and was
tipped to compete for China at the 2004 Olympics.
Everything was good until he broke the Achilles tendon on his left leg in
training and ended his career at the national team prematurely at age 20.
Zhang, 27, said in
a video posted on Chinese video sharing website Youku:
joined the national team at age 12, but I retired at age 20 due to injuries and
returned to my hometown. During that period of time, I had no such
experience as childhood. In my “childhood," the closest things to me were just
the cold equipment, parrallel bars, horizontal bar, pommel horse, and
gymnastics—it were these that accompanied me through my childhood,
until I turned 20.
With little education, he couldn’t do much else besides gymnastics. He
managed to stay in the Hebei provincial team for three more years and retired
for good with merely 30,000 yuan (US$4,600) from the government. Yet after
pension insurance, medical insurance, and such were deducted, only 10,000
yuan was left for Zhang.
At that time, there was a lot going on in my head. I also did not have any
income. I went back home after my retirement, yet my family was falling apart.
There wasn’t a lot of support for me. I also felt a lot of pain in my
Like so many other retired top Chinese athletes, Zhang was unheard of again
and quietly struggled to adjust to normal life or to even stay alive.
The government doesn’t have anyone who really pays attention to us or
help us. … What could we do? We are not even allowed into the authorities’
doors. What could we do.
For people with our [physical] state, we cannot do anything for long. Every
morning when I see the scars on my feet, I am very scared; I am deeply pained. …
Because of the amount of training [back then], I could not even grow any taller
(Zhang is 4 feet 11). Even when I applied for a security guard job, the
requirement was 1.65 meter (5 feet 5).
Nowadays, he’s out on the streets or at subway stations performing acrobatics
to earn between 30 and 50 yuan a day, barely enough for his meals; he used his
savings to help cure his grandfather’s cerebral thrombosis. Out of desperation,
he sold his gold medals for 100 yuan (about US$16).
Yet life turned around for Zhang when a Chinese blogger known as Wind Wave
recognized Zhang and wrote
a post about his street performances:
Every day he is there before I get to the office. And when I go home at 8
p.m. he is still there… the state has abandoned him.
The story went viral among Chinese netizens and media, shocking many in a
country where people look up to its champion athletes.
He is now temporarily living in a hotel paid for by a Chinese newspaper,
received 7,600 yuan in donation as of July 17 from kind-hearted netizens and
friends, and plans to open a fitness center to make a living.
Zhang told Modern
If I become successful, I will bring Grandfather to Beijing to take good care
Zhang’s story had a happy ending, but others might be less for fortunate.
Zhang told AFP:
In China, there are many athletes who have experienced the same thing as me,
so I’m one of the lucky ones as the media and society uncovered my
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