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08:44, August 21, 2008

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· Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
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Chinese fans have grown accustomed to seeing their weightlifters smash world records and win gold medals.

But at these Olympic Games, they have seen something they might never have dreamed of: victorious Chinese weightlifters being interviewed in English.

Gone are the days when Chinese lifters reached the pinnacle of their sport and then slid into a miserable retirement.

Every member of the national team now has some post-secondary education, and several have graduate degrees.

"We want to be successful as professional athletes and we also want to live a good life after retirement. Both things are important for us," said Zhang Xiangxiang, who won a gold medal in the men's 62kg class on Tuesday.

"I know there have been critics saying that Chinese weightlifters are uneducated and unable to adjust to normal life after retirement, but that is a thing of the past," Zhang said

"Now we are well-educated, and more international. We know what we are going to do after leaving the sport. We're definitely well prepared for life after weightlifting ."

It wasn't always so. As recently as ten years ago, weightlifters typically had no prospects after retirement.

Zou Chunlan, a former women's national champion, left the sport ten years ago with little education and was forced to raise livestock, transport sand, and work in a public bathhouse to support herself.

Her unhappy life was widely reported by local media last year and she received enough money in donations to open a laundry in Beijing.

The lesson was not lost on other Chinese athletes, however, particularly the weightlifters, who go through years of punishing workouts and often retire with crippling injuries.

Now, more than half the athletes on the national team have bachelor's degrees, and the rest are taking university courses, according to Chinese weightlifting chief Ma Wenguang.

Two lifters even have master's degrees - Zhang is a graduate student at the Beijing University of Physical Education, majoring in English literature, while women's 58kg champion Chen Yanqing has a degree in psychology from Jiangsu University.

"Having a good education is very important for our athletes," said Cui Dalin, China's deputy chef de mission. "It makes them more balanced people and helps them lead a better life after quitting the sport."

In 2003, China set up a nationwide program to provide scholarships, college stipends and insurance for athletes, Cui said.

Higher education is fast becoming the norm for China's elite athletes. World champion table tennis player Deng Yaping is a graduate of Tsinghua University and holds a doctorate in economics from Cambridge University in England.

Hurdler Liu Xiang is working on a doctorate in sports management at East China Normal University. Women's volleyball spiker Zhao Ruirui, tennis star Li Na, and diver Guo Jingjing are among the high-profile athletes taking postgraduate courses in their spare time.

"We want to do more than find them a job. We want to give them the skills to advance on their own after they retire," said Ma.

"This is a huge step for athletes. Once they overcome this first hurdle, they can do anything after they retire," he added.

Chinese sports icon Lang Ping, who now coaches the US women's volleyball team, agrees.

"Education is extremely important for athletes, especially for those who want to become international stars," Lang said.

"What impressed me most when I took the helm of Team USA is that their athletes are really well-educated. All of them have finished university studies and some of them even have higher degrees.

"There is good communication between me and my players. They always understand what I think and show me they are willing to learn something as long as it's good for them. This is the biggest difference between coaching in the US and in China and I think it's because of players' educational level."

Lang said she is happy to see Chinese athletes getting more educational opportunities.

"Chinese athletes are more international and more open right now," she said. "I'm thrilled to see them spending more time studying.

"You cannot be an athlete your entire life. Some US volleyball players become doctors or engineers after retiring. That's a wonderful thing not only for the athletes, but for the country's sports programs. I think the changing system in China is very good for the athletes."

For 58kg champion Chen Yanqing, education has not only improved her future, it has made her a better weightlifter.

"Learning psychology totally changed my career," said Chen, 29, who broke a world record to become the first woman to win two Olympic gold medals.

"It taught me how to react under pressure and helped me find what I am looking for in life. That's really important to me.

"Also, going to college is very important for athletes like me whose world is otherwise limited to the barbells."

Chen had retired after winning a gold medal in Athens four years ago. She enrolled in a master's program at Jiangsu University, but returned two years ago to set five world records at the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar.

"I love being in a classroom," Chen said. "I don't want to be a woman in her 30's who has never had a taste of being a student.

"I joined the weightlifting team when I was 15. After that, I didn't read a book. Now, I want to learn as much as I can. It has helped me find my motivation again."

Taking care of retired athletes has been a hot topic in China over the past few years. At the fifth session of the 10th CPPCC last year, former speed skater Ye Qiaobo urged the government to increase support for her fellow athletes.

Source: China Daily

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