BEIJING — Guo Ping was just 9 when she started training as a marathon runner. By the time she was 16, she had gone pro, getting up at 4 in the morning and sometimes running 40 miles a day on feet so swollen she could barely squeeze them into her shoes.
Although she harbored Olympic-sized dreams, the coal miner's daughter thought she also had a good backup plan. If she couldn't become the best of the best, she could always retire from sports and get a government job as a police officer.
That promise by her coach, she says, helped her endure a brutal training regime in which she and other runners had no contact with the outside world and no one to protect them from the coach, who beat them with a whip or baton, or knocked them off their feet with the bumper of his car if he thought they were slacking off.
But four years after she retired at 26 with nothing but an elementary school education and a body crippled by sports injuries, the former marathon champion says she has been duped.
Not only is there no job waiting for her, but Guo and her teammates charge that their coach pocketed their government-paid wages and refuses to give them back.
"We trusted him because we were young and he was our coach," Guo said. "He told us he'll save the money for us and we can have it all back later and not a penny will be missing."
Guo and two other former teammates at the Railway Ministry league are taking their coach, Wang Dexian, to court. Wang denies misappropriating their money and has said his beatings weren't severe.
But the case is an embarrassment to the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics and a reminder of the communist machinery that once mass-produced athletes and now can't afford to take care of them after retirement.
The athlete's entire training is financed by the state, and successful athletes, even basketball whiz kid Yao Ming, now a star for the NBA's Houston Rockets, are considered government properties who must do as their leaders say. Their job is about gaining glory for the country, not pursuing personal interests. Many poor families consider professional sports the best way out of poverty and are willing to sacrifice personal freedom for the leg up.
'Relics of the past'
But the cradle-to-grave welfare system that took care of their predecessors no longer exists. A lifetime of repetitive physical training and a lack of proper education conspire to make them poor candidates for the competitive new economy.
"These athletes are relics of the past, when training to win was all that mattered," said Xu Benli, a sports sociologist at the Shanghai Physical Education Institute. "The system is improving. The country is trying to give athletes a more well-rounded education. But it takes a lot of money to educate and find jobs for every retired athlete. Even now that's an impossible task."
The plight of retired athletes was elevated to the national political stage in March when former speed skater Ye Qiaobo, a member of the Beijing organizing committee for the 2008 Games and a 1994 Winter Olympics medalist, called on the Chinese parliament to give retired athletes the same social benefits as former soldiers.
"Athletes must choose a second career after withdrawing from the world of sport, and many of them go into retirement suffering from injuries. While the whole country watches its first home Olympic Games in 2008, cheering on the country's athletes to grab a bigger share of gold medals, we should also pay more attention to their lives," Ye told the China Daily.
Although some say the number is much higher, the Chinese General Administration of Sports estimates that about 6,000 professional athletes retire each year, and about 40% have a hard time finding new jobs.
Those who successfully reinvent themselves are usually high-profile Olympic champions. The best known is gymnast Li Ning, who won six medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, including three golds. He now heads a sportswear empire.
Another gymnast, Liu Xuan, took the gold medal in Sydney in 2000 and has gone on to college and become a pop singer. "Diving Prince" Tian Liang, who earned two Olympic golds and three world championship titles, announced his retirement in March. He plans to open a diving school and enroll in graduate school.
But behind each success story is a vast army of Chinese athletes who won't make it to the top and can barely survive at the bottom.
Former national weightlifting champion Zou Chunlan scandalized the nation last year when she acknowledged that she worked in a public bathhouse scrubbing people's backs for about a dime apiece. The 36-year-old also told state media her coach fed her "medicinal tonics" that ended up giving her unflattering male features such as facial hair and a husky voice.