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Athletes are run into the ground in China

Times Staff Writer

Guo Ping was just 9 when she started training as a marathon runner. By the time she was 16, she had gone pro, getting up at 4 in the morning and sometimes running 40 miles a day on feet so swollen she could barely squeeze them into her shoes.

Although she harbored Olympic-sized dreams, the coal miner’s daughter thought she also had a good backup plan. If she couldn’t become the best of the best, she could always retire from sports and get a government job as a police officer.

That promise by her coach, she says, helped her endure a brutal training regime in which she and other runners had no contact with the outside world and no one to protect them from the coach, who beat them with a whip or baton, or knocked them off their feet with the bumper of his car if he thought they were slacking off.

But four years after she retired at 26 with nothing but an elementary school education and a body crippled by sports injuries, the former marathon champion says she has been duped.

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Not only is there no job waiting for her, but Guo and her teammates charge that their coach pocketed their government-paid wages and refuses to give them back.

“We trusted him because we were young and he was our coach,” Guo said. “He told us he’ll save the money for us and we can have it all back later and not a penny will be missing.”

Guo and two other former teammates at the Railway Ministry league are taking their coach, Wang Dexian, to court. Wang denies misappropriating their money and has said his beatings weren’t severe.

But the case is an embarrassment to the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics and a reminder of the communist machinery that once mass-produced athletes and now can’t afford to take care of them after retirement.

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The athlete’s entire training is financed by the state, and successful athletes, even basketball whiz kid Yao Ming, now a star for the NBA’s Houston Rockets, are considered government properties who must do as their leaders say. Their job is about gaining glory for the country, not pursuing personal interests. Many poor families consider professional sports the best way out of poverty and are willing to sacrifice personal freedom for the leg up.

‘Relics of the past’

But the cradle-to-grave welfare system that took care of their predecessors no longer exists. A lifetime of repetitive physical training and a lack of proper education conspire to make them poor candidates for the competitive new economy.

“These athletes are relics of the past, when training to win was all that mattered,” said Xu Benli, a sports sociologist at the Shanghai Physical Education Institute. “The system is improving. The country is trying to give athletes a more well-rounded education. But it takes a lot of money to educate and find jobs for every retired athlete. Even now that’s an impossible task.”

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The plight of retired athletes was elevated to the national political stage in March when former speed skater Ye Qiaobo, a member of the Beijing organizing committee for the 2008 Games and a 1994 Winter Olympics medalist, called on the Chinese parliament to give retired athletes the same social benefits as former soldiers.

“Athletes must choose a second career after withdrawing from the world of sport, and many of them go into retirement suffering from injuries. While the whole country watches its first home Olympic Games in 2008, cheering on the country’s athletes to grab a bigger share of gold medals, we should also pay more attention to their lives,” Ye told the China Daily.

Although some say the number is much higher, the Chinese General Administration of Sports estimates that about 6,000 professional athletes retire each year, and about 40% have a hard time finding new jobs.

Success stories

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Those who successfully reinvent themselves are usually high-profile Olympic champions. The best known is gymnast Li Ning, who won six medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, including three golds. He now heads a sportswear empire.

Another gymnast, Liu Xuan, took the gold medal in Sydney in 2000 and has gone on to college and become a pop singer. “Diving Prince” Tian Liang, who earned two Olympic golds and three world championship titles, announced his retirement in March. He plans to open a diving school and enroll in graduate school.

But behind each success story is a vast army of Chinese athletes who won’t make it to the top and can barely survive at the bottom.

Former national weightlifting champion Zou Chunlan scandalized the nation last year when she acknowledged that she worked in a public bathhouse scrubbing people’s backs for about a dime apiece. The 36-year-old also told state media her coach fed her “medicinal tonics” that ended up giving her unflattering male features such as facial hair and a husky voice.

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With only a third-grade education, she was qualified to do little but backbreaking manual labor. She considered herself lucky to be hired by the bathhouse, whose owner was a fellow retired athlete who took pity on her and gave her free room and board.

Cai Li is another well-known Asian weightlifting champion who won numerous medals, including gold at the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing. He ended up as a doorman in a local sports school where young athletes are trained. When he died in 2003 of respiratory disease reportedly related to his training, state media reported he had $37 in savings.

Medals for sale

Guo’s teammate Ai Dongmei also drew headlines last month when she went online and offered to sell her medal collection to support her family.

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She and her husband, another former athlete, have been making ends meet by hawking popcorn and cheap clothes on the street for a few dollars a day.

“I regret bringing her into this sport,” said Ai’s uncle Ai Jingzhi, also a former runner, who recalled that the only job offer he got after retirement was as a furnace cleaner. “If she hadn’t become a runner, she might have gone to school and learned something useful to support herself.”

Guo said she envied Ai. At least she has a family and is scraping by.

The 30-year-old says she would love to get married and find a job. But she says no one wants her because of her feet, so deformed she can’t walk more than 10 minutes without sitting down.

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“You have to walk just to go on a date,” Guo said. “I walk with a limp and when I tell them why, they all just want to break up. We live in a practical world. No one wants to marry a cripple who can’t walk or work.”

During her prime, there were admirers. Once after a competition, a young man from another team walked up to say how well she had run. But speaking to strangers was against the rules. Her coach beat her so hard with his slippers that she went into the next day’s match with thighs that had turned black and blue. Another time, she said, the coach beat her for two hours straight for slamming a door.

“We were all petrified of our coach,” Guo said. “Just saying his name makes me sweat.”

Many teammates quit or ran away. But Guo stayed, not knowing anything else but her sport.

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“We would get up at 4 in the morning in the summers and 5 in the winters. We would run up and down hills, sometimes 40 miles a day,” Guo said. “For food we ate rotten vegetables and rarely any meat. We got to go home only once in five years. No one dared to complain for fear of being beaten.”

A father in tears

When her feet hurt so much that she couldn’t walk or pull on her shoes, she said, her coach simply gave her more shots to numb the pain and told her to keep on running. Now the bones of her toes are so deformed that she doesn’t dare go sockless or buy shoes in public.

“My father rarely sheds a tear, but when he saw my feet, he was bawling,” said Guo, who lives with her parents. They make about $30 a month and had to borrow money so she could get treatment for a heart condition and other problems she said are related to years of harsh training.

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“I became a runner thinking one day I can take better care of my parents. Now I am a burden on them.”

She has thought about ending her life. But that would mean letting the coach off the hook. So she decided to fight for her $6,000, her best hope of starting anew.

It might not be possible.

“That money has already been spent on her and all the other athletes,” said Zhang Julei, the coach’s lawyer. “I will prove in court that Coach Wang did not use any of it for himself.”

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chingching.ni@latimes.com


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