Robertas Dackus/Euroleague Basketball, via Getty Images
By DAN LEVIN
Published: August 18, 2011
BEIJING — Perhaps it was the latest bruise turning purple, or those final flecks of spit wiped away while walking off the court, or the curses echoing off the bleachers. Whatever the reason, the members of China’s national junior basketball team decided one day in April that enough was enough. So they wrote down their plea in teenager scrawl, signed their names with ink-stained fingerprints and sent it to the Chinese Basketball Association.
Chinese athletes, once dutiful ambassadors who obediently spent their lives in pursuit of patriotic glory, are no longer willing to just grin and bear it. A series of recent controversies is shedding light on how young athletes are beginning to expose abuse, challenge exploitation and reject official interference in their careers — risky moves in a country where there is no separation of sport and state. Their struggle is a microcosm of the clash in contemporary China between the push for personal liberty and the grip of an authoritarian government.
Like a growing number of Chinese, athletes have found a voice on the Internet and in the news media, publicizing conflicts and complaints the government would rather keep quiet.
“What’s happening now is the younger generation of athletes has so many options to communicate, through microblogs and social networking, that they want to stand up and speak out,” said Jiang Yi, the managing editor of Sports Illustrated China.
Yet athletes face a formidable opponent: the state-run sports system — a bureaucracy of training schools, teams and government organizations that selects and coaches more than 250,000 young people for the purpose of winning gold medals.
The system offers many athletes the chance to bring honor to their families and country through competition. But some of these athletes find that the Olympic rings become shackles that bind them for years in indentured servitude to a government that frequently neglects their scholastic education and ignores their injuries while taking a sizable cut of their earnings, all in the name of national pride.
It is a recipe that leaves many athletes unprepared to compete in the real world once they can no longer perform in a stadium. According to the state news media, 240,000 retired athletes suffer from injuries, poverty and unemployment.
One of those is Zhang Shangwu, 28, a former gymnastics champion who was discovered last month begging on a Beijing street. Selected at age 5 by the Hebei provincial government, Zhang won two gold medals before he injured his Achilles’ tendon during practice in 2002. He was forced by his coach to continue training. Sports officials then denied his request to study academic subjects and finally parted ways with him in 2005 with a pension of 38,000 renminbi, or $4,750, he said. “It was barely enough for food and the clothes on my back,” he told The Beijing News. Unskilled and unable to work because of his injury, he sold his medals for the equivalent of $13 and then was caught stealing. After being released from prison, he turned to panhandling.
The ensuing publicity of Zhang’s plight fueled outrage against the sports system and drew sympathy from the public, prompting a Chinese billionaire to offer Zhang a job as a personal trainer.
Success is also fueling rebellion within the athletic ranks among those talented enough to challenge the system. The tennis star Li Na, 29, was forced to choose between her career and her country in 2008 when she left the Chinese national team after sports officials refused to relinquish control of her life....