YUNNAN, Southwest China — Zheng Tao sits on the couch in his apartment, puffing on a cigarette gripped between two toes. The former Paralympic champion looks deeply unhappy, and it’s easy to understand why.
The 32-year-old is one of China’s greatest ever athletes. After losing both his arms as a small child, he was recruited into the country’s elite sports system and emerged as a swimmer of astonishing talent. He won seven Paralympic gold medals and set multiple world records before retiring after the Tokyo Games.
Yet, a year later, Zheng has sunk into a downward spiral. He hasn’t been able to find work, and now spends most of his days at home, smoking and playing on his phone. His medals are languishing in a suitcase so heavy that one person can barely lift it.
“I go for a walk in the park and feel better — such a rich life I live!” Zheng says, with a wry laugh.
No one ever helped Zheng prepare for life after retirement. Since he was a child, swimming has been his sole focus. He has barely any educational qualifications and almost no marketable skills. Worst of all, he isn’t even considered fit to be a swimming coach in China due to his disability.
“I like coaching kids, but I don’t have arms, so I can’t take the coaching exam,” Zheng says. “You tell me: Would that not make you angry?”
Zheng is far from alone in this. China has built a world-class system for training Paralympic athletes over recent decades. The country hasn’t just topped the medals table at the past five Paralympic Games; it has done so by enormous margins. It’s a record of which the country is proud, with champions like Zheng feted as national heroes.
Zheng Tao poses for a photo with his medals at home, 2022. Li Pasha/Sixth Tone
But many of these athletes struggle to find a place in society after their careers finish. China’s Paralympics program — like many elite sports systems — prioritizes athletic performance over children’s education, doing little to help them develop additional skills. And China is a tough place for people with disabilities to find work. Though Paralympians can earn lucrative prize money, and some are given state jobs after retirement, many others end up unemployed and in debt.
Yet China’s sports authorities have no shortage of aspiring athletes. For many disabled children, a Paralympic career represents their best chance of escaping poverty.
In rural parts of China especially, people with disabilities face widespread discrimination. Many struggle at school and have limited career options, says Yang Mengheng, who attended sports school with Zheng in southwest China’s Yunnan province.
“They usually drop out after middle school,” Yang tells Sixth Tone. “The very fortunate could perhaps open a small convenience store.”
Yang still remembers the day he was scouted by the sports system. Like Zheng, he had lost both arms after being electrocuted during a childhood accident. But he was still crazy about sports — and one day he was approached by some representatives from the can lian, the organization that looks after the interests of local people with disabilities.
Yang Mengheng at 7 years old, not long after his arms were amputated. Courtesy of Yang Mengheng
“First question: Are you doing well at school?” Yang recalls being asked. For most kids, the answer was no, and so the scouts would pitch an alternative route to success: becoming a professional athlete.
“You can win gold medals, get money, get a job!” Yang recalls them saying. “They told my parents and me about disabled athletes who had a very good life, made a lot of money, and got married.”
After passing a series of physical tests, the 10-year-old Yang was sent to a ti xiao — a sports boarding school, where China’s future sports stars live and train full-time. There, he shared a room with a young Zheng Tao, who also arrived at the school at 10 years of age.
Yang and Zheng had been sent to one of the cradles of China’s Paralympic team. A remote, mountainous region, Yunnan province has pioneered the art of finding talented children in the Chinese countryside and molding them into future champions.
The province set up its Paralympic swimming program in the 1980s, which became so successful that it’s now known as the Dream Team. Since the 2004 Athens Paralympics, Yunnan’s swim team has won 29 gold, 23 silver, and 20 bronze medals, and set 28 world records.
“We’re all from the countryside, from poor families, and we are very good at eating bitterness,” says Zheng. “Yunnan is also at a high altitude — good for training.”
Yang Mengheng plays soccer, 2010. Courtesy of Yang Mengheng
Life at the boarding school in Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital, was tough. Training was relentless, the pressure to win intense. Kids who failed to meet the coaches’ targets were cut from the team. They did not want to go back home, and some would “cry, beg, even get on their knees,” recalls Yang.
But Yang says he enjoyed life at the ti xiao. As a specialist school, every child there had a disability. The students shared a natural camaraderie, and were glad to be in an environment where they no longer felt like outsiders.
“We had a sense of belonging … everyone was the same,” says Yang. “Back in my hometown, the teachers tried very hard, but you always felt discriminated against. I use my feet to write and do everything. Kids always associate feet with bad smells, and some would not touch my stuff, or lend me pencils or pens.”
And despite the strict discipline and grueling training, the students still found ways to have fun.
“We were in an environment with no parents to control us — the coaches were just in charge of training,” Yang recalls. “Many boys escaped during the night to play computer games, drink, and eat at streetside barbecues.”
The top athletes were also able to make serious money. The scouts’ promises of lucrative prize money were not an exaggeration. Although the Chinese sports system only pays athletes a minimal salary — often just a few hundred yuan a month — the win bonuses are far more generous. At the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, each champion received 100,000 yuan (then $12,150). By Beijing 2008, the bonuses for gold medals had reached 500,000 yuan.
Yang Mengheng speaks to school kids in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2013. Courtesy of Yang Mengheng
Some of Yang’s teammates in Yunnan had several million yuan in their bank accounts while they were still teenagers. Around 5-10% of the para-swimming team were earning very good money, he estimates. But there was a problem: “They had no knowledge of how to invest it or manage it.”
Local officials would urge the students to save their money, but the young champions usually wouldn’t listen, Yang says. They were in their teens, living alone, and flush with cash. Most of them burned through their winnings very quickly.
“They’d go for huge meals, buy fancy computers, luxury underwear,” recalls Yang. “Some would pay 5,000 yuan to perm their hair.”
And then it was time to retire. The career of an elite swimmer is brutally short, and the kids at the ti xiao often hadn’t prepared for what would come next. “Athletes peak between 20 and 25,” says Zheng. “Once you’re 30, you’re on your way down. Me at this age — I’m no use anymore.”
Retirement hit Zheng particularly hard. As an athlete, he’d enjoyed fabulous success. His world record in the 50-meter butterfly is just eight seconds slower than the able-bodied record. His record-smashing victory in the 100-meter backstroke at London 2012 is still considered an all-time classic Paralympic Games performance.
Then, it was all over, and Zheng suddenly realized he had no prospects. At the ti xiao, the academic lessons had been little more than a formality. Many students — Zheng included — never even got a high school diploma. And after spending his entire youth living and training inside the sports system, he had very little life experience.
“Once I left, I understood nothing,” says Zheng. “An athlete’s life only has three things: eating and sleeping; training; competing. I have no experience of being in society.”
Zheng Tao competes in the mixed 4x50m freestyle relay - 20 points final during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Aug. 26, 2021. Adam Pretty/VCG
Some para-athletes are allocated coaching and bureaucratic jobs by China’s sports authorities, but there aren’t enough of those positions for everyone, says Yang. Many use their winnings to set up businesses, but they often fail. Several of Yang’s former teammates lost their investments and were forced to borrow money from everyone they knew.
“Without resources, knowledge, or support, starting a business is very hard,” he says.
Yang is a rare success story. After an injury ended his swimming career while he was still in his teens, he returned to high school and found he was one of the worst students in his class. But he “studied like a madman,” and eventually went on to do a master’s degree at Cambridge University. He’s now a successful motivational speaker and education consultant, as well as the author of several books.
But Yang was fortunate to have parents who were teachers, and who were able to guide and support him. Most of his teammates are the children of farmers, and didn’t enjoy the same advantages, he says. Even Yang has found the deck stacked against him on several occasions.
Yang hoped to study foreign languages at university. With his outstanding grades, he should have qualified for a place at one of China’s top universities. But when his father called up one elite college — which Yang prefers not to name — they told him that Yang would not be admitted, no matter how good his academic record was. The reason: his disability.
“I still remember them telling my father, ‘Because we nurture diplomats, appearance is very important,’” Yang recalls. “My appearance was not good enough for them.”
Wang Xiaofu receives his gold medal in the men’s 100m freestyle during the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, Beijing, Sept. 8, 2008. VCG
Wang Xiaofu, a five-time Paralympic gold medalist, agrees that para-athletes need their parents’ guidance. “If you don’t have a lot of support from your family, starting a business can be very hard,” he says.
Known as China’s Michael Phelps, Wang was a legend in Yunnan. In his teens, he was known as much for his flash motorbikes and beautiful girlfriends as his gold medals and record-breaking swims, Yang recalls. But he has managed to find stability in retirement, thanks largely to his family’s support.
“I’m luckier than Zheng Tao. I have one arm, so I can do more,” Wang says. “My family gave me a lot of help. I now work at two swimming pools coaching kids and teenagers, and have a building materials company.”
The situation for disabled children in China has improved in recent years, Yang says. For example, students with disabilities now receive extra time during examinations, he points out. But many young people are still tempted to try and make it as professional para-athletes — and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
“The path for people like us is very narrow,” Yang says. “People with less education now have more options to be part of society — they can work as food delivery couriers or Didi drivers. But not us.”
Yet joining the sports system remains a risky option for children with disabilities, Yang says. While the top athletes can earn small fortunes, the majority of ti xiao students “not only leave with nothing, but also miss out on the best age for receiving an education.” And for many retired para-athletes, a “sense of failure, depression are the main themes in life,” he adds.
For Yang, China’s sports schools need to overhaul their systems, to create a stronger safety net for their disabled students. “Education must be integrated into daily training,” he says. Athletes should be taught “vocational skills, such as cooking, baking, and perhaps running a small business,” and also given formal training on how to invest and manage money, he adds.
Inside his apartment on the outskirts of Kunming, Zheng lights up another cigarette. Twenty years as a swimmer may have left him with no job, income, or diplomas. But the great champion remains defiant.
“Out of 300,000 people with no arms in the world, I’m the only one who can swim the 50m butterfly like that,” he says. “The second person has not appeared yet.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Zheng Tao gets ready to compete in Men’s 50m Backstroke-S5 during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Aug. 30, 2021. Zhang Lintao/VCG)