Digital Version Shop TWOC Events

Life After Sporting Glory

Some retired athletes go on to fame, fortune or glory, others end up as beggars


Life After Sporting Glory

Some retired athletes go on to fame, fortune or glory, others end up as beggars


As the 2016 Olympic Games drew to a close, plenty of new athletes had made their mark on the public consciousness, but it was also a fond farewell to sporting achievements for many–the shelf-life of an elite athlete’s competitiveness is often brutally short.

Retired athletes face a critical decision about what to do in future. Should they learn a new trade? How should they move on?

There are lessons to be had from their predecessors, but lessons can come in two shapes: stunning successes and dismal failures. So let’s take a trip down memory lane to look at some upstanding examples and a few cautionary tales from ages past.


Coaching is the most common choice for retired athletes. At the Rio Olympics, if you watched the coach seats carefully, you may have spotted some familiar faces.

Lang Ping, former Chinese volleyball player and the MVP of women volleyball in 1984 Olympics, has been always regarded as a cultural icon and one of the most respected people in modern Chinese sports history. After retirement, Lang started her coaching career. In 1995, Lang became the head coach of the Chinese national team and eventually guided the squad to the silver medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics, and second place at the 1998 World Championships in Japan. In 2005, she became the coach of the US National Team and guided the team to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where the US team faced off with China and finally won a silver medal. In August 2016, as the head coach, Lang guided the Chinese national team to the gold medal at the Rio Olympics. With this victory, Lang Ping became the first person in volleyball history, male or female, to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games as a player and as a head coach.




Retired athletes are often invited to the TV station as guest commentators, to assist the main commentators in giving professional comments and analysis of a game or event. In most cases, it is just a one-time job, but some have become professional full-time sports commentators.

Yang Ying, former Chinese table tennis player, achieved Gold at several World Table Tennis Championships in doubles and team play. Yang has been working as a table tennis commentator for CCTV-5 since 2008.

Apparently, commentating is never an easy job. Their comments and criticism can easily incur anger from sports fans. It’s a good time to take note of a piece of internet slang “You can you up“, which means “if you can do it, then you go and do it”, or in Western parlance “talk is cheap”. This slang is often used against commentators by fans when their favorite players are criticized.

But in this case it has to be applied carefully: Yang actually “can” walk the walk.



Li Ning, known in China as the “Prince of Gymnastics” (体操王子), is one of the most famous and successful gymnasts. In 1982, he won six of the seven medals awarded at the Sixth World Cup Gymnastic Competition. And at the 1984 Summer Olympics, which was the first Olympics in which the People’s Republic of China participated, Li won three gold medals, two silver medals, and one bronze medal, making Li Ning a household name.
In 1988, Li retired. And in 1990 he founded Li-Ning Company Limited, which sells athletic shoes and sporting goods. Li-Ning targets consumers who participate in sports such as running, basketball, badminton, football, tennis, and fitness and endorses a number of athletes and teams, both at home and abroad. Li remains chairman of the company’s board of directors. A report in 2014 said that Li has an estimated fortune of RMB 5 billion, making him the 407th wealthiest person in China.




Coaching, commentating and sports companies are all still related to sports, but others have made more radical transitions.

For most Chinese TV viewers, Tao Hong is a familiar name. Many of her film and TV works are very popular in China. Few are aware that she used to be a synchronized swimmer (it isn’t typically a sport that gets much attention in China either). As a National Games of China champion, Tao was part of the Chinese national team at several synchronized swimming competitions from 1987 to 1991, including the 1991 World Aquatics Championships.

In 1993, a famous director found Tao and invited her to take part in the film In the Heat of the Sun. Tao retired from swimming to start her acting career, which has been even more successful. She studied at the Central Academy of Drama, one of the top acting schools in China and became one of the first students in the school’s history to receive a perfect grade. As an actress, Tao received a lot of acting awards, including Best Actress in 18th Golden Rooster Awards, Best Supporting Actress in 23rd and 32nd Hundred Flowers Awards, and Outstanding Actress at the 4th Huabiao Awards.

Image of Tao Hong in TV play The Red

Image of Tao Hong in TV play The Red [iqilu.com]

Many followers are still exploring in this road. Tian Liang, a former diver and gold winner in 2000 and 2004 Olympics, became an actor after retirement. In contrast to Tao’s case, despite acting in many films and TV performancse, people still couldn’t accept Tian as an actor rather than a diver.


Image of Tian Liang in TV play Legend of Love, from tieba.baidu.com

Image of Tian Liang in TV show Legend of Love [tieba.baidu.com]

Starring in reality shows

Compared with becoming professional actors or actresses, taking part in a reality show is much easier. As a large number of reality shows boom in China, retired athletes make the ideal mid-level celebrity. They don’t need to learn acting, because in the show they can just play themselves. If necessary, they can even bring family members along for the ride.

 Olympic Gymnastic Champion Li Xiaopeng and his daughter in reality show Dad came back

Former Olympic Gymnastic Champion Li Xiaopeng and his daughter in reality show Dad Came Back [163.com]

Former Olympic 110-meter hurdles champion Liu Xiang in reality show The Amazing Race

Former Olympic 110-meter hurdles champion Liu Xiang (left) in reality show The Amazing Race [pcpop.com]


Not all athletes end up in high places. Some retired athletes who abandoned their education at an early age to focus on sports found that they lacked the necessary skills to get on with life. Things did not go well for them.

Cai Li, a weightlifting gold medalist at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games, worked as a security guard after retiring in 1997 and died of a respiratory disease.

In 2006, former national champion weight lifter Zou Chunlan hit media headlines after she was found living in poverty and working at a public bathhouse as a rubdown worker. Zou later received aid from the national federation of women to start a laundry business and has been able to support her family.

Zhang Shangwu, a former gymnast who won two gold medals at the 2001 Summer Universiade in Beijing, was photographed demonstrating his gymnastic skills for money at a subway exit in Beijing. Zhang, who retired in 2003, originally planned to matriculate to one of the country’s athletics universities. However, he claimed that the Hebei provincial gymnastics team, of which he was once a member, refused to provide the support they had originally promised him, and the national team failed to take action.

Both the national team and the Hebei provincial team have denied responsibility, and said that Zhang was sentenced to three years and 10 months in prison in 2007 after being caught stealing laptops and cellphones from the Beijing Xiannongtan Sports School. Allegedly, before his retirement, Zhang had also previously been caught stealing personal belongings from his teammates on multiple occasions.

Image of Zhang Shangwu performing in the subway, from sina.com.cn

Image of Zhang Shangwu performing in the subway [sina.com.cn]


Cover image depicting former Olympic Gymnastic Champion Liu Xuan, who now works as an actress, from bendibao.com and Sina