China’s former star gymnast turned beggar is back to performing on streets

Baoding, China, April 14 2021: Chinese legendary champion gymnast, Zhang Shangwu made headlines a decade ago after he was seen begging in Beijing. The attention prompted a job offer as a fitness instructor at the company of Chen Guangbiao, a wealthy recycling magnate and philanthropist.

After suffering an injury that ended his gymnastics career, Zhang was imprisoned for theft and another prison stint later, Zhang is again making a living on the streets, doing handstands and singing for a live online audience in a car park in his home town of Baoding.

Zhang’s fate cast a spotlight on the lives of former athletes in China, a leading Olympic power, are often reared in special schools from a young age and can struggle to adjust to normal life once their careers are over. Zhang appeared destined for the Olympics after he won two gold medals at the 2001 Universiade.

An injury brought his promising career to an end and with little education, he took jobs as a waiter and a care worker, struggling to survive, his injuries hampered his ability to work and he turned to theft, spending nearly five years in jail before being released in April 2011.

His luck then turned around when in July that year when he was recognized while performing stunts and begging on the street. He was inundated with job offers. He said he was lucky to be spotted because lots of other Chinese athletes experienced similar falls from popularity.

Then in another fall from grace, last year, Zhang who no longer talks to mainstream media said on Chinese social media that he had again been released from prison after serving jail time for theft. On a recent evening in Baoding, he did handstands and chatted to an online audience of a few hundred people. Decked out in a Chinese national team top, he saluted and bowed to a non-existent crowd. He has in the past used his mobile data connection to sing for online fans.

Online viewers send him real or virtual gifts, which can be converted to cash.

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