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China philanthropist hires gymnast-turned-beggar

In a spectacular reversal of fortune, a champion Chinese gymnast who was forced into stealing and begging after an injury ended his career has landed a job with one of the nation's richest men.

world Updated: Jul 26, 2011 13:27 IST

In a spectacular reversal of fortune, a champion Chinese gymnast who was forced into stealing and begging after an injury ended his career has landed a job with one of the nation's richest men.

The case of Zhang Shangwu -- who was recently discovered performing stunts for money in Beijing -- has caused outrage in China, where athletes who have devoted their lives to sport are often discarded once their careers are over.

The 27-year-old said on Tuesday that Chen Guangbiao, a wealthy recycling magnate and philanthropist, had offered him a position as a fitness instructor at his company.

"I'm leaving for (the eastern city of) Nanjing on Thursday. The salary is more than 10,000 yuan ($1,550) a month," he said, adding he would continue to appeal for retired athletes to be "resettled, educated and given medical care".

The salary is above average in China, where the minimum wage in Beijing, for example, is just 1,160 yuan.

Like many athletes in China -- known for its sporting prowess on the international scene -- Zhang was taken from his home when he was five to be trained in a special school and he received little formal education.

Years later, he won two gold medals at the 2001 Universiade, a global sports event for university athletes that took place in Beijing, but sustained a tendon injury soon after which brought his promising career to an end.

He then took jobs as a waiter and a care worker, but his injuries hampered his ability to work and he was eventually forced to turn to theft, spending nearly five years in jail before being released in April.

But earlier this month his luck changed when he was recognised on the streets of Beijing by a fan. His story was picked up by dozens of media outlets, went viral on the Internet, and attracted the attention of Chen.

"I will also hire a tutor for Comrade Shangwu to teach him presenting skills and how to sing," Chen said on a video posted on his Twitter-like Sina Weibo page.

Chen added he planned for Zhang to be the main presenter at one of his charity concerts in the southwestern province of Guizhou in September, and also hoped he would sing "a few songs".

Chen, whose wealth was estimated last year at five billion yuan, has been named the country's top philanthropist in terms of donation levels. He has pledged to give all his fortune away when he dies.