China is known to have a very aggressive Olympic sports development program, but with hundreds of thousands of young prospective athletes trained for many years to develop, only a few make the cut.
Those who fail to stand out are discarded from the program and are left to fend for themselves after years of sacrifice.
Plucked from schools as young as four years old, the children are denied a normal education and are subjected to hours of grueling training daily.
At the age of 12, Zhang Shangwu was selected to train for a spot on the national Olympic team. Through hard work, the boy from northern China’s Hebei Province would later become a brilliant gymnast at the age of 18, winning two gold medals at the 2001 Beijing Summer Universiade. His success gained him some short-lived fame, with local sites calling him a “rising star” of the sport, according to the Epoch Times.
An unfortunate accident during training the following year, however, left Zhang with a torn Achilles tendon. His injury prevented him from competing in the 2004 Olympics. He would later leave the program in 2005 without compensation. With very little options, he used the only skill that he learned to make some money: performing gymnastic stunts on the streets.
Struggling to get a decent living, Zhang remained homeless and slept under bridges or computer shops. His gold medals have long been sold for around $15 each.
A few years later, Zhang began stealing from various sports schools in Beijing. He was later caught and sentenced to over four and a half years behind bars.
Without any form of safeguard for the ill-fated trainees who have missed out on secondary and university education, the rejected athletes are then left with very few options to find decent employment.
State-run news agency Nanjing Daily reported in 2010 that around 45% of Chinese athletes become unemployed after their retirement from sports. There are also some athletes who are representing the country but are not employed directly by the state.
These players reportedly do not have any benefits waiting for them after retirement, according to the Nanjing Daily. It reported that out of the 33,294 total active athletes playing for China, only 17,444 of them are on the official payroll, and those who are entitled to benefits receive a monthly compensation of about $150.
With Olympic victory largely valued as a source of national pride, the country’s notorious hunger to accumulate as much gold as possible has placed tremendous pressure upon the athletes to succeed. State media quickly brands victors as heroes while those who fail to perform well are deemed as failures.
In the end, the painful truth is that they really do fail in life but it’s hardly their fault.
“I went to the sports college at 15 and I retired at 25,” Liu Chengju, a former weightlifter and widow of a fellow weightlifter told Sina. “This ten-year-stretch of my life was like blank space—it slipped away in an instant.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, Liu ended up accumulating around 70,000 yuan ,about $10,500, in debt.