Former champion gymnast Zhang Shangwu found begging on street
Zhang Shangwu: His gold medal-winning performance was the highlight of his career, and he seemed certain to make the cut for the 2004 Athens Olympics until he broke his left Achilles tendon in training in 2002.
Zhang Shangwu, One of China's most promising young gymnasts, who seemed destined for Olympic glory before his career ended in injury, has been found begging on the streets of Beijing, prompting criticism of the country's sports system.
Zhang Shangwu, a 27-year-old retired gymnast, was recognized by a passerby, who took a picture of him begging and performing before he was soon driven away by a patrolling police.
A passerby posted the shot online, which stoked public interest in the fallen star. Netizens are taking pity on the former gold medal winner, and wonder what led to his now making a living by performing on the street.
Born into a peasant family in Baoding, Hebei province, Zhang Shang Wu (Chinese:张尚武) was sent to a local gymnastics academy at the age of five. After seven years of gruelling training, he showed enough promise to be selected to China's national team and in 2001 he was entered by officials into the World University Games, despite not having an education outside his sport.
His gold medal-winning performance was the highlight of his career, and he seemed certain to make the cut for the 2004 Athens Olympics until he broke his left Achilles tendon in training in 2002.
He never fully recovered, missed the games, and in 2005 he retired with a 38,000 yuan (£3,650) pay-off from the government in his home province of Hebei. "The money meant the local team no longer had to take any liability for my future," he said.
"After I left the sports system, I got a job as a food delivery boy, but after a while my injury got worse and worse so eventually I couldn't run or even walk for long periods".
His savings were wiped out, he said, when his grandfather had a brain haemorrhage. "That used up all my remaining money, and then I was forced to sell my medals because I did not have any money for food."
Shortly afterwards, in 2007, he turned to theft and was arrested in Beijing, only being released in April this year.
"I have no choice -- no one helps me and school didn't provide me basic living allowances," Zhang said. "In addition, my grandpa was suffering a serious illness and needs money for treatment."
Zhang has since led a down-trodden life, but never caught public attention.
On April 12 this year, Zhang was released after serving his sentence. He found his grandmother died of illness in his hometown in Hebei province. Later, a desperate Zhang sold some silver and gold medals for cash.
"Being a retired gymnast, my 1.51-meter height is a shortcoming," Zhang said. "Nobody believes I can do heavy labor work.” His tendon injury adds another pain during his job-hunting.
Zhang decided then to start begging on the street, and was driven away many times by patrol police. Yet he continues begging.
"Nobody knows how he makes a living in Beijing, but this time, he emerges in another 'ungraceful’ case," the report says.
The post caught the attention of Zhang's former coach Fan Hongbin, who says Zhang's retirement and recent incidents are all caused by "personal reasons," and Fan left no further comments.
Zhang's former gymnastics team member Xing Aowei is calling for public assistance. "Though I don't know further details of Zhang's living, I think begging on the street as a former gymnast, it's a disgraceful thing for China's national sport."
Mr Zhang's situation has shocked China, which spares no effort in honouring the winners of Olympic gold medals, showering them and their families with gifts. Critics said that it was unacceptable for the majority of athletes, who retire in anonymity, to be left in difficult circumstances.
Another report from Beijing News says the Hebei Sports Administration has started an investigation into Zhang's case. A staffer at Hebei Sport Administration disclosed that the National Sports Administration also opened an investigation.
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