Looking for life after glory of victory

Updated: 2014-02-13 09:30

By Zhao Xu (China Daily)

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If you listen to Sun Xiaofeng, who leads the foundation's five-member managing team, there's a fundamental difference in the social perception of retired athletes in China compared with other places.

"In the West, they are supposed to ride on the momentum to get higher and higher, like a pole vaulter. Here, they are believed to have reached the pinnacle of life, with not much left to do but fall," Sun said. "Where others see continuity, we see disconnection and rupture. That's what we've most wanted to change with our program."

Organized around a series of workshops in which people from human resources companies, businesses, universities and various NGOs interact with current and former athletes, the program encourages self-discovery.

"Growing up and seeing few people other than coaches and fellow teammates, and doing very little else but train, the majority of Chinese athletes live through their sporting years in half-seclusion. Consequently, they have scant knowledge about commercial society and the possibilities it offers," Sun said. "In our classes, most have no idea about the difference between a company's marketing and PR departments. Things like this can easily eat into an athlete's self-confidence."

But character is as important, if not more so, than the acquisition of knowledge, Sun said. "Perseverance, an ethic of hard work, a team spirit, a never say never attitude - these qualities, which are inherent in a great athlete are exactly what employers are looking for in a competitive job market and are a formula for personal success. The 3,000 newly retired athletes we have each year should be a gold mine."

One way the foundation brings out the gold is through games. Athletes become teammates with others in the program, including professionals from the business sector. Rules are designed to create communication links between people who had previously lived in parallel worlds.

"Why a game?" Sun asked before answering his own question: "Because that's where all the best attributes of an athlete shine through." As the ancient Greek philosopher Plato observed, one can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation, he said.

Among those who have adopted Plato's wisdom is Yuan Yunxian, human resources consultant for FESCO Adecco, who is a frequent speaker in the program and closely involved with some of its participating athletes.

"When they talk to you, you feel the passion and anxiety. And when they say thank you, you have no doubt that it's from the heart," she said. "All sincerity and no pretension - that's really their most powerful weapon."

However, Yuan also noticed a strong tendency among the Chinese athletes to act - and possibly think - with too much uniformity. "I once divided a class of athletes into several discussion groups and later asked each one of them to choose between being employed by a public or private enterprise, or being self-employed," Yuan said. "People within the same discussion group always came up with the same answer, despite their apparent individual differences.

"This reminded me of their former regimented life, where most decisions were made for them by coaches, and where team members train, eat and sleep at virtually the same time.

"One of the major challenges faced by retired athletes is to stop running on that old track, to branch out and form their own life trajectories," Yuan said. "We encourage them to see and celebrate their individuality, which indeed is the beginning of a fulfilling life."

Zheng Shulan, a former boxer who fought all the way to a national fifth place before a waist injury forced retirement in 2006, knows what that means. "Every one of us is bound to have a difficult time getting weaned from our habitual reliance on collective decision-making. That's the price we pay for truly growing up, something overdue by at least 10 years," she said. "People within the Champion Foundation's project recognize the vulnerabilities as well as the strengths of us athletes."

Zheng, 27, now works as a sales assistant at a Decathlon store. She is popular with her customers thanks to the professional advice she can provide, and has also proved to be a fast learner when it comes to management. She plans to apply for a higher position in 2014.

The onetime beneficiary of the Champion Foundation program now hopes to help others.

"Back on the sports team, I was always the big sister and everybody's confidante," Zheng said. "I believe I've got the ability and charisma to shepherd a team - something I would otherwise have no chance to know if I stayed with my former team doing chores like some of my fellow retired friends have done, reluctantly if not resentfully."

For many years until the late 1990s, the State was responsible for the employment of all its retired athletes. Some became coaches or physical education teachers at various levels with sports teams or schools. But the majority were reassigned to new, often menial, jobs. Those who were allowed to remain with the team were frequently reduced to cleaning or to work in the canteen, while others were forced by a new employer - often State-owned enterprises - to accept jobs that managers thought were suitable for an athlete, which in most cases meant manual labor.


With the country's embrace of a market economy, things turned even more sharply downhill for many retired athletes. Employment by the State is no longer a guarantee. Instead, after being paid a one-time allowance, many athletes are left to fend for themselves in a strange new world, a world for which they are ill-prepared.

One name that's often evoked to epitomize the plight of retired athletes is Cai Li. A record-breaking weightlifting champion of the 1990 Asian Games, Cai worked after retirement as a porter at the local transportation bureau in Shenyang, in northeastern China, and then as a security guard at a sports college. His physical condition deteriorated. Obesity led to severe respiratory problems that were compounded by a lack of money and inadequate treatment, and which led to his death in 2003 at age 33, only five years after he retired.

"The stereotyping and prejudices of our society can do much to break a champion," said Chen Weiqing, former director of the physical education department at the prestigious Tsinghua University. "But on the other hand, it has to be pointed out that crucial things, including a real emphasis on academic study, are missing from the lives of our athletes."

With remedial instruction, Yang's foundation teaches athletes how to do interviews, write a resume and create a business plan. But as far as Chen is concerned, these measures are minimal at best.

"It should have started much earlier. And the training of an athlete should always be secondary to the cultivation of a person, in body and in soul," he said. "In the West, sports have been fully commercialized. A professional athlete is one who's very much in the market, which means that he or she has to be a fully developed person to not only compete on the court, but also successfully present himself or herself outside of it.

"Our system has undoubtedly produced a bumper crop of gold medals. And the fact that everything is paid for by the State has made some expensive sports accessible to those who have the gift but lack the means," Chen said. "But what is more precious than youth? And how could a medal retain its luster when the owner has gone into pitiable oblivion?"

Now, things are changing for the better, according to Zhang Xi, a 29-year-old former beach volleyball player who has served as a volunteer for the foundation project.

"The government today offers many more educational opportunities to athletes. And athletes themselves have matured compared with their predecessors of one or two decades ago," Zhang said. "Dedicated as athletes have always been, they know they have a right to assert themselves and that a colorful life awaits.

"To reshape an athlete's path at the time of retirement does not necessarily mean to depart from what he's been doing. In fact, many retired athletes continue to involve themselves in sports-related areas. If that's their choice, I hope it is made for love, for the fulfilling of a dream."

That's on Yang's mind, too. Her first question to any athlete seeking help for an employment problem is always the same: What is your dream?

"All I know is that there's a sleeping champion in that dream," she said, "a champion waiting to be reawakened."

Contact the writer at zhaoxu@chinadaily.com.cn


Looking for life after glory of victory
Looking for life after glory of victory
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