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Skeleton in the closet of China's weightlifting hierarchy

Updated: 2012-07-30 22:00
By Yan Weijue (

Zulfiya Chinshanlo gazes up through tear-filled eyes at her gold medal for the women's 53 kilogram weightlifting event, kisses it, and then puts her hand on her chest as she begins to sing the national anthem of Kazakhstan, a country that has been her motherland for the past four years.

She was Chinese, now Kazakhstani, and will probably return to China next year, when her five-year lease contract expires.

Skeleton in the closet of China's weightlifting hierarchy

Kazakhstan's Zulfiya Chinshanlo poses with her gold medal of the women's 53Kg weightlifting competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games July 29, 2012. [Photo/Agencies]

Zulfiya, or Zhao Changling, her original name, dodged almost all the China-related questions in the post match interview, her face made it clear she was not keen to answer questions on the topic of her citizenship changes.

She did underestimate the tenacity of China's paparazzi, who dug deep into the atheletes past, one filled with misery, confusion and compromise.

Zhao was born in the remote, mountainous Daoxian county within Yongzhou city in Central China's Hunan province in 1993, rather than in Almaty, Kazakhstani as her accreditation information shows. She didn't start pro weightlifting training until her parents sent her to a special school in Yongzhou when she was 11.

Zhao's talent in the sport was soon cultivated, and she managed to make the provincial-level team.

Then one day in 2007, Liang Xiaodong, then the Hunan Provincial Bureau director summoned Zhao to ask if she was interested in competing in the Olympics – if that meant she would have to change her nationality and play for another country under the so-called "Wolf-rearing Plan" launched by China in a bid to dispatch its athletes overseas to help with the development of its dominant sports there.

After preliminary hesitations, Zhao accepted the offer and was "leased" to Kazakhstan with another teammate in early 2008. The Hunan Sports Bureau had a relative file records.

"If I chose to stay in China, I probably wouldn't have had the opportunity (to compete in the Olympics)," said Zhao.

With her triumph at the London Olympics, Zhao's story could have been an inspiring one: another China-made athlete who strived to become a world champion. But as another Chinese woman stumbled while competing in the same match, things began to get complicated.

Skeleton in the closet of China's weightlifting hierarchy

Zhou Jun of China competes on the women's 53Kg Group B weightlifting competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games July 29, 2012. [Photo/Agencies]

Zhou Jun of China failed all three attempts to lift 95 kg, becoming the country's first ever weightlifter to be so unsuccessful. Some media reports described it as "the most humiliating loss" in China's weightlifting history. They began to question how the 17-year-old rookie was picked for the team.

The disappointing outcome was a product of intrigues and egoisms between sports authorities of the Hunan and Hubei provinces. First Hunan's Wang Mingjuan edged Hubei's Tian Yuan out of the women's 48 kg weightlifting events – some said the Hunan side fabricated a rumor that Tian was transgender, which caused her to be disqualified. Then China's sports governing body gave the women's 53 kg quota to Hubei as compensation, despite the fact that China's most dominant weightlifter in this category, Li Ping, was from the Hunan side.

But Zhou was not even the best on the Hubei team. Peculiarly, the more favored Ji Jing failed to make the final roster. The reason? Hubei authorities said Zhou was in a better condition and they chose Zhou over Ji in order to adhere to the national strategy to "train those with the best prospects".

So it was that two Chinese female weightlifters representing two countries had their match-up at the 2012 Olympics. Zhao got the landslide victory, quenching a five-year thirst for gold, while Zhou succumbed to pressure and fell amid a wave of criticism.

One thing for sure is that Zhou is the victim. And for Zhao, her fate changed the day she won gold for Kazakhstan.

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