Champion gymnast's downfall shocks China

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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.

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.

Then last week his luck changed when he was recognised performing stunts on the street for money, and his story has now been picked up by dozens of media outlets.

Billionaire recycling magnate Chen Guangbiao even offered to give him a job, although Zhang said he was too busy with media interviews to think about what he would do next.

Authorities in the northern province of Hebei, where Zhang is from, refused to comment when contacted by AFP, but his story has captured the public imagination and raised questions about the state's duties to former athletes.

Weightlifter Cai Li, a gold medalist at the 1990 Asian Games who could only find work as a security guard after he retired, died in 2003 from causes related to years of hard training.

And national champion weightlifter Zou Chunlan was a bathroom attendant for years after she retired because she was unable to get a better job. A local women's group eventually helped her get her own laundry shop.

"Should there not be people responsible for someone who leaves his parents when he is five years old and lives a life of physical and mental exhaustion, as if he were in prison?" said one user of the Twitter-like Weibo service.