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State-run system leaves retired athletes in the cold

2011-12-22 15:13    Ecns.cn     Web Editor: Zhang Chan
Patrick is delivering his lectures to athletes in China's Hubei Province.

Patrick is delivering his lectures to athletes in China's Hubei Province.

(Ecns.cn)--Chinese sports stars such as retired NBA player Yao Ming and tennis champ Li Na have made their marks for China on the global stage, rising up from the country's rigid state-run sports system to achieve success in the international arena. Not all of China's athletes are so fortunate, however.

On July 14, 2011, the news that former Chinese champion gymnast Zhang Shangwu had been chased out of Beijing's Wangfujing shopping area by police after engaging in unauthorized begging and street performances sparked heated discussion in China.

Having won two gold medals at the 2001 Beijing Universiade, Zhang was a shining gymnastics star at the age of 18. During that period, people admired his talent and the glory he had earned for the country; but when he failed to be selected for China's gymnastics team for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, everything changed.

Athletes enjoy wide public attention while they are in their prime, but after retirement they generally fade into obscurity – and there are always new stars coming along to replace them.

In May 2011, after noticing the necessity for an organization to support retired athletes, Yang Yang, China's first champion of the Winter Olympic Games in 2002 and a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), launched a non-profit organization called the China Champion Foundation.

Since its launch, the foundation has organized four training programs for professional athletes. The most recent – and the largest – was held in central China's Hubei Province on December 10.

Through the training, the foundation hopes that young athletes will learn how to better balance their lives between study, training and other non-athletic activities. The sooner they can manage this, the easier it will be for them to live more respectful lives after retirement.

Because they often begin training at a young age and know little else other than their field of sport, it is hard for many athletes to make a living once they leave the court or gymnasium behind. "But I want to tell them that they are not just athletic machines to win medals, they are the owners of their lives," said Patrick Glennon, who works at a large American human resource company that cooperates with the IOC and was responsible for the training in Hubei.

Since 2005, Glennon has trained over 3,000 athletes from all over the world. "Retired athletes are facing many problems. Although some of them are stars who have money and fame, they still can't figure out who they want to be," he said.

Glennon has a complete training system, but in order to make it more suitable for Chinese athletes, he has had to change things up a bit. Afraid that the athletes may not understand English, he asked Gao Hong, former member of Chinese female football team, and Yang Wei, former male gymnast of the national team and a current officer with the Hubei Sports Bureau, to help out.

Glennon told the athletes that although they have little experience in other walks of life, they can still be successful after retirement. "Athletes have many good qualities that common people do not have, or have little of, such as a sense of discipline, tolerance and perseverance. These qualities, if used properly, will help them succeed in other fields," said Glennon.

During the four-hour training course, Patrick delivered a lecture and asked the athletes to write down the qualities they thought they had. "For the first time, I found that I have so many positive qualities," said He Shuai, a shooter who attended the training.

"In the past we were worried that athletes might get too concerned about their future, which could negatively impact their training, so we seldom told them to think about their lives after retirement, but it seems that this kind of guidance is necessary," said Dai Chengbao, a senior official with the Hubei Sports Bureau.

In order to guarantee performance, the state-run sports system has served as a nanny for the country's athletes over the years, providing every necessity and helping them to deal with problems. But this "captive breeding" system has failed to teach athletes to be independent or how to prepare for life after retirement.

Some athletes refuse to integrate into society, and some, though they are willing to live as common people, find that they cannot catch up with social progress.

"Lucky ones get hired by sports bureaus or go to school to start over, but most of the athletes can't find a way out," said Yang Yang. In 2010, during the Guangzhou Asian Games, Yang and four others began to do research on athletes. About 97.2 percent of the informants expressed willingness to join training programs.

"We can't give them working opportunities directly, but we can teach them more about society and help them find their own way," said Yang Yang.