For­mer athletes build­ing new lives

China Daily (USA) - - CHINA - By TANG YUE tangyue@chi­

The nor­mal story goes like this: Athletes grow up in the State-run sports sys­tem and the very few at the top win Olympic gold medals, be­com­ing na­tional he­roes. Af­ter re­tire­ment, most of the cham­pi­ons be­come of­fi­cials in lo­cal or cen­tral govern­men­tal bod­ies, mostly in sports sec­tors.

From 1984 — the year China sent its first Olympic squad since 1949 — un­til the 2012 Lon­don Olympics, 222 Chi­nese athletes have won gold medals in eight Sum­mer Olympics and four Win­ter Games. About 60 per­cent of them chose po­lit­i­cal ca­reer paths af­ter re­tire­ment and the rest went on to be­come coaches in the lo­cal or na­tional sports team or teach­ers in uni­ver­si­ties.

To name a few, Wang Nan, a four-time fe­male Olympic ta­ble ten­nis gold-medal­ist, then 30, re­tired af­ter the Bei­jing Olympics and be­came a depart­ment level cadre in the Com­mu­nist Youth League.

Mean­while, Yang Wei, a three-time Olympic gym­nas­tics cham­pion who also re­tired af­ter the 2008 Games, is now the vice-di­rec­tor of the gym­nas­tics depart­ment of the pro­vin­cial sports bureau in his home Hubei prov­ince, a more com­mon route for elite Chi­nese athletes.

But the norm is slowly break­ing. More re­tired athletes have opted to start their own busi­nesses thanks to the boom­ing sports in­dus­try in China.

Ac­cord­ing to the Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Sport, the added value of the sports in­dus­try ac­counted for only 0.56 per­cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct in 2013. In com­par­i­son, the fig­ure was about 3 per­cent in the US the same year.

How­ever, it is grow­ing quickly thanks to fa­vor­able poli­cies from the cen­tral govern­ment and the ris­ing health aware­ness of an ex­pand­ing mid­dle class. As an in­di­ca­tor of the boom, more than 30 of the Chi­nese A-share listed com­pa­nies are in­vest­ing in the sports in­dus­try.

The sports author­ity es­ti­mates that the scale of the sports in­dus­try in China will be about 3 tril­lion yuan ($ 449 bil­lion) by 2020, ac­count­ing for 1 per­cent of GDP.

Ac­cord­ing to Tan Jianx­i­ang, a sports so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at South China Nor­mal Univer­sity, the rapid growth of the sports in­dus­try of­fers a great op­por­tu­nity for the athletes to turn their ex­pe­ri­ence and fame into busi­ness suc­cess, es­pe­cially for those who don’t want to spend the rest of their lives in bu­reau­cracy.

“It is not that the re­tired athletes are so in­ter­ested in po­lit­i­cal ca­reers. Rather, hav­ing been ded­i­cated to train­ing and com­pe­ti­tion since they were very young, many of them have no idea what they could do other than sports. As such, se­cur­ing a job in govern­ment bod­ies seemed a ra­tio­nal choice, which is of­ten given to them as a re­turn for win­ning glory for the coun­try,” he said.

“But now they have a big­ger stage be­cause the sports in­dus­try is tak­ing off in China and the in­tan­gi­ble as­sets of the cham­pi­ons are of great value.”

Chen Yib­ing is one of those catch­ing the trend. The three­time Olympic gold-medal­ist turned down the of­fer by the Tian­jin Sports Bureau af­ter re­tire­ment in 2013 and be­came a sports lec­turer at Bei­jing Nor­mal Univer­sity in­stead.

How­ever, Chen found the job not chal­leng­ing enough and re­signed a year later, start­ing his own on­line sport­ing goods busi­ness. In 2015, he launched the in­ter­net ap­pli­ca­tionXing Dong, which teaches body build­ing. The ap­pli­ca­tion re­ceived a 12 mil­lion yuan in­vest­ment and has 700,000 reg­is­tered users so far.

“I al­ready ran six fit­ness clubs be­fore re­tire­ment. I’ve been de­voted to sports for more than 20 years, know­ing a lot about the in­dus­try and hav­ing many friends in the cir­cle. It ismy ad­van­tage over the en­trepreneurs com­ing from other fields,” said Chen. But a start-up is never an easy job, he ad­mits. “I now work 12 hours a day. I leave home be­fore the baby wakes up and when I am back home, she is al­ready asleep,” said Chen, fa­ther of a 11-month-old girl.

Sun Yingjie’s ath­letic ca­reer might not be suc­cess­ful as Chen’s. She won the Bei­jing In­ter­na­tional Marathon from 2003-05. But she never made the podium at the Olympics and her best per­for­mance at the World Cham­pi­onship was a bronze medal.

It doesn’t keep her from run­ning one of the lead­ing run­ning clubs in the coun­try though. Es­tab­lished by Sun and her hus­bandWang Chen­grong, also a re­tried long-dis­tance run­ner, in Bei­jing in 2014, the club now has eight branches na­tion­wide with more than 5,000 mem­bers in to­tal.

It came as no sur­prise as the num­ber of marathon races sky­rock­eted in the past few years, jump­ing from 12 in 2010 to 134 in 2015.

“I was an ath­lete for so many years and didn’t suf­fer from severe in­juries. I have ex­per­tise in how to keep fit while run­ning a lot. My hus­band was also an ath­lete and coach, which helps us win the trust from the am­a­teur run­ners,” said Sun.

“But it is also our weak­ness in a way. We spent most of the time train­ing and are not very so­cia­ble. It is a great chal­lenge for us to do star­tups,” said Sun.

For many years, un­der the State-run sports sys­tem, the athletes were ded­i­cated to train­ing from their early years and re­ceived lim­ited aca­demic ed­u­ca­tion.

As a re­sult, for those whose

I have ex­per­tise in how to keep fit while run­ning a lot. ”

owner of a run­ning club in Bei­jing and a re­tried long-dis­tance run­ner

Sun Yingjie,

num­ber of reg­is­tered users of the in­ter­net ap­pli­ca­tion Xing Dong that was launched by three-time Olympic goldmedal­ist Chen Yib­ing

suc­cess isn’t good enough to win a job ar­ranged by the govern­ment, it could be quite hard some­times to be em­ployed af­ter re­tire­ment.

For ex­am­ple, weightlifter ZouChun­lan, de­spite break­ing the na­tional record in 1990, be­came a kitchen staff mem­ber at the Jilin pro­vin­cial train­ing base af­ter she re­tried in 1993. She then worked at a lo­cal pub­lic bath­house, giv­ing fe­male cus­tomers rub­downs, af­ter leav­ing the train­ing base in 2000.

In an­other case, Ai Dong­mei, win­ner of the Bei­jing In­ter­na­tional Marathon in 1999, an­nounced the sale of dozens of her medals in 2007 when she was un­em­ployed af­ter re­tire­ment.

Tan, the sports so­ci­ol­o­gist, be­lieved the ex­pand­ing sports in­dus­try will help more re­tired athletes se­cure a de­cent job and, hope­fully, change the na­tion’s sports sys­tem in the long run.

“With more clubs es­tab­lished by re­tired athletes, more kids will re­ceive train­ing in the sports clubs rather than the govern­ment-run sys­tem, just like the US,” said Tan.

“On one hand, the chil­dren will have a more bal­anced life be­tween study and sports, which is re­spon­si­ble for their fu­ture. On the other hand, only the larger pool of tal­ent can sus­tain a na­tion’s good per­for­mance at the Olympics.”

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