China's Disposable Athletes

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China Photos / Getty

Chinese athletes practice at the Yinzhou District Sports Center.

When Zou Chunlan left school to become a professional athlete, her recruiting coach assured the 13-year-old that the nation's huge sports bureaucracy would look after her for the rest of her life. All she had to worry about was winning. For a decade, Zou followed his advice, winning the 48-kg national weightlifting title in 1990 when she was 19 years old and pocketing four other national championships. But when she retired in 1993, Zou discovered that the coach's side of the bargain wasn't going to be met. After three years of menial jobs in the women's weightlifting team's kitchen, she was asked to leave.

With her little education and total ignorance of the real world, Zou had little choice but to turn to physical labor. After stints carrying sacks on a construction site and selling lamb kebabs in the street, she ended up as a masseuse in a public bathhouse earning $60 a month. Her fate isn't unusual. A weightlifting coach explained to the Beijing News that Zou wasn't the only retired weightlifter struggling with the real world. "Zou's national medals are worthless. There are world champions who end up jobless after retirement."

The system that is so good at churning out Olympic medalists seems to be even better at producing poverty-stricken retired athletes. Last year, China's national news agency Xinhua reported that almost half of 6,000 professional athletes retiring from competition each year end up jobless or without further schooling plans. Among them, the winner of the 1999 Beijing International Marathon Ai Dongmei, 26, who announced last year that she had no choice but to sell off her medals so that she could feed her family. Former Asian weightlifting champion Cai Li died of pneumonia at age 33 after he couldn't afford to pay his medical bills. Liu Fei, a seven-time national champion and world champion in acrobatic gymnastics, struggles to live on the $20 she earned monthly from tutoring gymnastics.

According to the China Sports Daily, nearly 80% of China's 300,000 retired athletes are struggling with joblessness, injury or poverty. Many athletes suffer from sports injuries and health problems caused by their training. Zou came out of the system with her own appalling legacy. She says the pills she was required to take made her grow a beard and develop a prominent Adam's apple and a deep voice. "My coach told me it was a nutrition booster. I trusted him," Zou says. The steroids also made her infertile. Now, she must shave every couple of days.

The root of Zou's troubles, like so many things in China today, can be traced back to the country's wholesale adoption of capitalism. Market forces were unleashed on what was once a sports system that cared for its athletes from cradle to grave, leaving Zou and tens of thousands of others out in the cold when they had passed their athletic peak and could no longer win attention and profits for their sports associations. In 2003, the changes were reinforced by a new law that shifted most responsibility for employment after retirement to the athletes themselves. "This group of athletes is the legacy of China's economic development," Liu Mingyu, deputy director of Liaoning Provincial Sports Bureau told the Beijing News. "I feel for them, but there is nothing we can do to help all of them." The 2003 law stipulates that "a lump sum compensation is to be given to those athletes who choose to find jobs on their own." But that amount is usually not big enough to help an athlete with injuries and without an education.

Athletes now in training, however, may benefit from a new regulation currently being considered in the country's sports bureau. It would bar recruitment of professional athletes until after they graduate high school. Some joint programs between sports teams and university departments have also been under discussion so that athletes are able to attend classes in university during training.

Since her plight became public, things have taken a turn for the better for Zou. With the help of the All China Women's Federation, she opened a laundry shop six months ago in her hometown, Changchun, capital of Jilin Province. She no longer has to work as a masseuse at a bath house. But she is still struggling. Unable to read and unfamiliar with computers, she says she can hardly manage to add up her accounts. "I gave my youth to sport," she told TIME over the phone, in a voice thick with emotion, "but in return, I was thrown out like garbage with no knowledge, no skill and a barren womb."