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Ending to Gymnast Turned Beggar Story Not So Happy

By Eric Fish

A star gymnast turned beggar who became a media sensation and pet project for a wealthy philanthropist is now back soliciting donations in the same subway where he started.

29-year-old Zhang Shangwu (张尚武) won two gold medals in gymnastics at the World University Games in 2001 and was a favorite for the 2004 Athens Olympics. However, an injury ended his career and in July 2011, he was discovered panhandling in the Beijing subway. During the subsequent media flurry, it came to light that he’d sold his two gold medals and had served time in prison for theft. 

For many, Zhang’s story was a vivid indictment of China’s Soviet-style sports training system, which discards athletes who fail to win national glory and sends them out into the world with few useful skills.

But the story seemed destined for a happy ending after it made headlines and a slew of job offers came in from sympathetic compatriots. One of these offers came from Chen Guangbiao (陈光标), the $510 million man who heads Jiangsu Huangpu Renewable Resources Utilization Resources Co., Ltd. 

Chen is a controversial figure in China often accused of using philanthropy as a pretext for self-promotion. More recently, he took out a half-page ad in the New York Times with two pictures of himself which declared China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands. 

At a highly-publicized event in July 2011, Zhang Shangwu signed a contract to join Chen’s company as a fitness trainer for a monthly salary of 11,000 yuan on top of an 80,000 yuan upfront donation.

However, Zhang’s employment was short-lived. Three months later, he quit the company after being criticized by two Shanghai sociologists on Dragon TV for being grossly overpaid at his new position. 

“They said these insulting words to devalue me, especially on a TV program,” Zhang told South China Morning Post. “It shocked me very much and my dignity has been deeply hurt.” 

Zhang reportedly demanded 140,000 yuan from the two sociologists for the “public insults” and claimed Chen Guangbiao’s secretary told him, “You don’t contribute any value, why are you paid so much?”

After returning to Beijing, Zhang got involved in a startup making special pillows, but by March of 2012, he’d dropped out of that venture as well.

Now it appears Zhang is right back where he started.

On Jan 19, he was spotted performing acrobatics for donations at the Yonghegong subway station in Beijing.  After setting up a tin cup for money, he held a handstand as several onlookers came forward to put in cash.

Panhandling and begging in Beijing’s subways can yield hundreds of yuan per day – more than most laborers and even some white collar workers can earn. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Zhang’s return to the subway was a desperation move or simply a better option than other opportunities.  

Over the past year Zhang has popped up in news reports a few times after being spotted panhandling, and his story was rekindled by several media outlets during the 2012 London Olympics. He’s otherwise stayed under the radar apart from his Weibo account, which over recent months has repeatedly shown posts asking the lord to “please forgive my sins” without further explanation.

Whatever his situation is now, Zhang didn’t seem too anxious to talk about it. When approached, he said that he wasn’t interested in doing any interviews. He then quickly left the area.


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