He was a gold medal winning gymnast who trained around the clock from the age of 5 to make a better life for himself. But these days, 27-year-old Zhang Shangwu can be found performing acrobatics on street corners or panhandling in Beijing's subways.
Last week a Chinese blogger, who goes by the name Wind Wave, recognized Zhang and wrote a post about his street performances: "Every day he is there before I get to the office. And when I go home at 8 p.m. he is still there… the state has abandoned him."
The story spread quickly, shocking many in a country that traditionally reveres its champion athletes.
One internet user wrote, "He's wandering the streets and doing acrobatics in Beijing subway. It reminds me of a famous line in the play Tea House, 'I love my country but who loves me?'"
Other bloggers were not as sympathetic. "He has other options," one Sina Weibo user wrote, "He shouldn't hijack public opinion with these stunts."
Zhang was selected for China's national team in 2001 and won two gold medals at the World University Games in Beijing. But his Olympic dreams were shattered in 2003 when he suffered an injury to his Achilles' tendon and failed to make the cut for the 2004 Athens games.
World Champion Gymnast Begging on Beijing's Subways
From there Zhang slipped into a life of desperation, working odd jobs and struggling to subsist on the meager compensation he received. His situation became so desperate that he was forced to sell his two gold medals for less than $20.
In 2007, he was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of stealing laptops and cell phones from a sports school in Beijing.
Zhang was released in April and has been performing on street corners and sleeping in internet cafes ever since. On his blog, Zhang explained that he was forced to panhandle because he had no education and he needed money to help his sick grandfather.
"I wanted to show my filial piety," Zhang told a local news station, "but I have no means and I don't have any qualifications."
Zhang is not the only Chinese sports star to struggle. Zou Chunlan, a national female weightlifting champion, was forced to take a job mopping floors at a public bathhouse.
The media furor over Zhang's situation has drawn attention to the difficulties many retired Chinese athletes face.
Gao Min, an Olympic diving champion in 1992, blogged Monday, "When I saw the news about Zhang I was heart-broken… I hope the state will soon work out an effective policy to take care of retired athletes."
For Zhang, there just may be a happy ending. In the wake of all the media attention, many have come forward offering help and jobs. He has been put up in a hotel and his blog has ratcheted up 14,000 fans in just three days.
As he told reporters in Beijing on Sunday, "It's been a dreamy 24 hours."