Zhang Shangwu, a champion gymnast who was forced to turn to begging after injury ended his career prematurely has become a media sensation recently.
His case throws the spotlight on the plight of top athletes in China, who are taken from their homes as young as four to be trained in special sports schools, then struggle to adjust to normal life once their careers are over.
Everyone has his own views on this issue. From my perspectives, related sports ministry or society doesn’t have the direct responsibility, but we need to rethink profoundly of what our athletes lack.
In China, most athletes are not well educated. That’s because they are isolated from cultural education when they are little. These potential sports starts are being trained intensively at sports school and the main goal is to win the medals. Even they are arranged to study a couple of hours a day, all they can do is to pretend they are listening or just sleep in class. “I was too tired after the training and our teachers just turned a blind eye,” my friend, a former fencer sighed.
Currently in China, sports and education seems two parallel lines. It could be dangerous and pricy. Once the key potentials fail to make great achievements, it would affect the entire team performance and the athlete’s future. Take Yao Ming as an example. He was trained as the hope ever since he was little. But what if he turned out to be average or couldn’t make it to NBA? It’s way too risky to bet on a couple of athletes.
In the United States, almost all the athletes are selected from regular schools. They don’t have sports schools. The biggest talent origins for NBA is colleges. Coaches at university select excellent players from high schools and universities offer full scholarship. These basketball players are required to pass recruitment test. Their training period is strictly limited to make sure they have enough time to study. They can’t graduate if they don’t earn enough credits, just like every other average students.
Back home, our athletes are spending way too much time on training. They don’t have time and energy to learn what they’re supposed to learn. System is to blame, but I also sensed some of these athletes are guilty too.
As a top-level fencer, my friend didn’t study hard at high school because she knew she would go to university anyway. She only got less than 200 out of 630 scores in Gaokao but was still admitted by one of the top 3 universities in Shanghai. She then represented that university to compete in University Games domestically and internationally. But the reality is that even though she was entitled as a graduate from a top university, it didn’t help her at all when she was looking for job. She was too busy training and competing in the games. As a result, she didn’t learn any skill rather than fencing at school.
What about those athletes who don’t even have a chance to go to the university through bonus policy? Their situation would be even worse. However, in the U.S, athletes, no matter they are top ones or average ones, basically don’t have a problem of finding them other jobs after retirement. The combination of sports and education makes the society value sports. Often times, in the U.S, those who used to be athletes or are good at sports are popular and respected in all walks of life. But in China, unless you’re an elite who has won golden medals in world first-class game, your life after retirement would be harder than you can ever imagine.
In fact, the theory of combining sports and education has been spoken over 20 years in China. It’s just not working in the way we expected. I know our system is different from the U.S and other counties and we have difficulties that we haven’t figured out how to tackle, but we do need to speed up if we want to see the next Yao Ming soon.
We can’t just copy the model how American cultivate their sports talent, but we could at least let sports be part of the education. Sports and education are not supposed to be separated in the first place. In order to do that, we need to create a surrounding where sports and education are combined and it cannot be realized without the efforts of parents, coaches and athletes themselves. We need to help them understand the importance of education and how it will benefit their whole life.