A champion gymnast forced to turn to begging after injury ended his career prematurely has become a media sensation in China after a fan recognised him eking out a living on the streets of Beijing.
Zhang Shangwu’s case throws the spotlight on the plight of top athletes in China, who are taken from their homes as young as five to be trained in special schools, then struggle to adjust to normal life once their careers are over.
The 27-year-old said he had been inundated with requests for interviews and offered jobs by well-wishers, including one of China’s richest men, after his spectacular fall from grace was made public and splashed across newspapers.
‘In China, there are many athletes who have experienced the same thing as me, so I’m one of the lucky ones as the media and society uncovered my plight,’ he told AFP in a telephone interview.
Mr Zhang said he won two gold medals at the 2001 Universiade, an international sports event for university athletes that took place in Beijing, but a year later sustained a tendon injury which brought his promising career to an end.
With little education, he took jobs as a waiter and a care worker, but his injuries hampered his ability to work and he was eventually forced to turn to theft, spending nearly five years in jail before being released in April.