Education opportunities for budding sports stars is giving more athletes the skills to survive after retirement...
After winning silver in the 100m sprint at the National Games five years ago, underdog turned favorite Hu Kai was understandably distraught when he could only finish eighth in the competition last year in Shandong.
But as painful as the defeat was, it had little impact on the marathon he is well on his way to finishing at Tsinghua University.
"Of course I cared about my performance, but running is only something I love not something I must live by," said the 27-year-old, who is more than half way through his master's degree in Beijing. "I'm still uncertain whether to pursue a PhD or to find a job after graduation. Either way, with a good education background I don't need to worry about my future."
Hu is one of the beneficiaries of a sea change in thinking in China as more budding athletes turn to university sports programs rather than arcane athletic academies that provide young minds with little education or hope of finding a job once their career is over.
Unlike in the United States and some other nations where colleges have long been major training grounds for athletes, Chinese sportsmen and women often grow up in special schools where academic skills are very much secondary to physical training.
And despite the success of former gymnast Li Ning, who is now a multi-millionaire thanks to his popular sportswear business, the majority of athletes produced by China's traditional training system struggle to make a living after retirement.
Up to 40 percent of the 4,000 to 6,000 who retire from professional sport every year in China have problems finding a new career, according to a 2008 survey by the State General Administration of Sport.
"In the past, retired athletes were given jobs in State-owned companies or government organizations, but such opportunities are rapidly disappearing," said Zhong Bingshu, vice-principal of Beijing Sports University. "Even college graduates find it difficult to get jobs, let alone retired athletes who know nothing except how to run or play ball games."
His comments were supported by figures released by the Ministry of Education last year that showed a quarter of all graduates had failed to find work as of Sept 1, 2009.
Ai Dongmei is arguably one of the biggest victims of the country's traditional academy system.
One of China's most successful long-distance runners - in 1999 she won international marathons in Beijing and Dalian, as well as in Chiba, Japan - Ai hung up her running shoes in 2003. But she struggled to find work and within just four years she had sold all 16 gold medals she won during her career for just 1,000 yuan ($140) each to help feed her family.
"It's really hard to find a job without much knowledge. Nobody wants to hire us," said Ai, 32, who has a 1-year-old daughter and sold clothes on the streets of Beijing's Tongzhou district. "Now I realize education is vital to everyone. Athletes are no exception."
Ai was 10 when she started full-time athletic training at a sports school and said she has done almost no academic study since then.
While her post-career struggle may be an extreme example, there have been growing calls within China to move away from State-sponsored sports academies and towards a system that allows universities to play a bigger role in nurturing athletes.
"Student athletes can and should be the main force of China's competitive sports, like Western countries," said Yang Liguo, secretary-general of the students' sports association under the Ministry of Education.
In the US, colleges offer handsome scholarships to candidates with sporting talent so they can represent them in National College Athletic Association (NCAA) competitions. It is a system that has produced some of the world's best performers, with graduates from Stanford University in California going on to win a combined 222 Olympic Games medals, including 111 for the US national team.
The NCAA system also ensures students only spend 20 hours a week in sports training, meaning they have plenty of time for academic study.
Universities here are keen to copy the success of the NCAA. According to Yang at least 235 Chinese colleges already operate sports teams, allowing tens of thousands of students to pursue their athletic dreams and get a college degree.
Students at Tsinghua University have led the way by claiming five gold medals and six silver in track and field and shooting at the last two National Games. Student Liu Tianyou, 25, also won the men's 10m air rifle individual and team events at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, capital of Qatar.
One standout performer for Tsinghua has been Hu Kai. After impressing at sports camps and in the national college entrance examination, he was enrolled in the college's school of economics and management in 2001. He joined the track team shortly after and now trains more than two hours every weekday.
"My parents didn't want me to drop education and neither did I. I know I can't run all my life, no one can, and I didn't want to have to choose. I wanted both," he told China Daily.
Hu is better known across China as Yan Jing Fei Ren, or Flying Man with Glasses - a nickname he earned by winning the men's 100m while wearing glasses at the 2005 Universiade in Izmir, Turkey. He was the first Chinese to win a sprint at an international event.
"I feel so lucky to study in Tsinghua. It helps me in so many ways. It broadens my vision, helps me to learn more about the people and the world, and helps me be a better person rather than a mere sprinter," he said.
Chinese college training now also includes some less popular sports, like softball. All the players in the Jiangsu softball team that won bronze at the National Games last year were students at Nanjing University of Technology.
Academic study helped the squad prepare for competition both on and off the field, said business administration major Wang Yanni, 22, who played third base for Jiangsu.
"We don't train as much as other teams but it doesn't keep us from fighting in the games. The knowledge learned in the classroom stretches our thinking and helps us adjust mentality on the field," she said.
Jason Rabedeaux, a former NCAA coach for Marquette University in Wisconsin, agreed and said education must be the number one priority for students and colleges.
"That's why basketball players in the US go to college; to get an education, to get a degree," said Rabedeaux, now head coach of Jiangsu Dragons in the Chinese Basketball Association. "Education makes you better understand everything in life. You are with classmates, exchanging ideas daily. The goal is to be as rounded as an individual can be."
Since Tsinghua University kicked off its high-level sports program in 1994, the majority of its 500-plus student-athletes have found good jobs after graduation, said Du Chao, a class adviser at Tsinghua for 15 years.
"They are more confident than other students after taking part in fierce competition. Some of them even applied for overseas schools to pursue higher qualifications, just like the other students at Tsinghua," she said.
However, financial support for Chinese students who play for college teams remains insufficient compared to what is available in the US.
Shang Ping, once a highly touted power forward with the Chinese national youth team, played basketball for the University of Nebraska from 2007 until 2009 and earned a bachelor's degree in economics.
"We have been taken good care of since we were playing for our college. The scholarship covers all my tuition and accommodation," said the 25-year-old from Heilongjiang province. He has signed to play this season for Beijing Ducks.
"Sometimes I had to miss class due to a match or training session and the school would send tutors to help me keep up with my academic work."
Robbie Tenenbaum, who coaches the women's sculls team at Clemson University in South Carolina, told China Daily about 20 out of 55 rowers on the team received scholarships of $35,000 a year, as well as "anything else they need".
By contrast, Hu receives a bursary of just 3,000 yuan a year from Tsinghua, which pays little more than half his tuition fees.
"And not every student on the athletics team enjoys this benefit," said Hu.
The sprinter did not even have a regular doctor until he was included in the national squad for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he became the first Chinese to ever make the second round of the 100m.
Meanwhile, his coach Li Qing said he is too busy to concentrate solely on Hu.
"In the developed NCAA system, coaches are full-time and teamed with professional researchers and medical staff. Here we have to teach physical education to ordinary students and must struggle to meet other requirements while taking care of training," he said.
The problem is rooted in tight and unstable budgets, said Wu Yuejian, deputy director of sports at Tsinghua University. He was reluctant to reveal how much is available for college sports, saying only that it was "random".
"Under the State system, all money goes to the professionals. Why not allocate some money to the college sports teams? I think we have proved we can do as good as professional teams in some sports," he said. "College is obviously the best option for any athlete but we need more support to keep the system growing."