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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2006, 12:00am

In a shabby public bathhouse down a small alleyway in Changchun - the capital of Jilin province in China's northeastern rustbelt - a stout woman scrubs the toilets and gives female customers back rubs through the course of the day for five yuan a rub.


Her service is popular and she can give up to 25 back rubs a day. The women tell her they like her strong hands kneading into their shoulders, but the 34-year-old is too embarrassed to tell them how she came to be so powerful. Zuo Chunlan was a top weightlifter who won the national championships and even broke a world record. But now, after years of devotion to her country and her sport, she's in poor health and destitute.


Like so many other athletes who spent their sporting lives in the cocoon that is China's national system, she is struggling to adapt to the realities of modern life since her career came to an end.


When she was 14 years old a sports official eyed her strength and squat stature and invited her on to the weightlifting team. She was taken out of normal school and brought into the sports system. Though young athletes are meant to continue their education while they are in training, studies often fall by the wayside as they focus on their sporting careers. Zuo, a case in point, is practically illiterate.


But while her friends were studying she was pumping iron and turning into a top-class lifter. Through her career she brought glory to her province and nation, winning 14 major medals along the way. She was only 17 years old when she took three golds at the national championships, breaking the world record for the clean-and-jerk lift in the process.


But it wasn't long before the strenuous training started taking its toll on the young girl. She picked up several injuries and was effectively forced into retirement at the ripe old age of 22. The socialist sports system that reared her technically has the responsibility to look after its injured and retired athletes, so Zuo was found a job in the team's canteen where she washed dishes and made steamed bread for a few years.


Then, after much persuasion, she finally agreed to leave and signed a statement relieving the sports department of any responsibility, taking in return a one-off payment of 75,000 yuan to cover medical fees and her retirement. The money seemed like a lot to her at the time but it rapidly disappeared, largely spent on medical bills.


Not only was she carrying injuries linked to the arduous training, but she also found she was becoming more and more masculine by the day, a condition consistent with systematic doping. At the height of her career she noticed her breasts had all but disappeared, and she started to develop an Adam's Apple. Over a few years her high-pitched voice became a deep growl. Her legs were covered in thick hair and she found she grew a beard and a moustache every couple of days. Every day she uses tweezers to pluck out facial hair that appears.


She also found she was unable to get pregnant. Doctors told her that her womb had not fully developed, and they suspect her condition is linked to the use of steroids, such as testosterone, which she was likely given in training.


Zuo does not know what performance-enhancing substances she took, but she told the sate-run media recently that: 'From the time I entered the team the coach gave me some kind of invigorator tablets. He said that they would increase my strength and help me achieve more.'


Now she has to take courses of female hormone tablets to try to redress the imbalance.


Neglected by the sports system, a former member of the local judo team remembered her and took pity, giving her a job in his bathhouse and providing her and her husband with a room to sleep in. For every five yuan backrub she gives, she gets to keep 1.25 yuan.


On a good month her income can reach 500 yuan, just enough to keep her afloat as long as she sticks mostly to her diet of rice and white cabbage.


'But sometimes I go crazy eating that all the time so I have to fry an egg or two to go with it,' she said.


Beside her bed is a small table where she keeps her 14 medals. 'They used to bring me so much pride, but now the memories just cause pain,' she said. 'If I ever did have children, I would never let them become weightlifters.'


Of the more than 15,000 registered athletes on the mainland, only a handful of big names get to enjoy the fruits of lucrative endorsement deals, such as basketball giant Yao Ming. Many others take up positions within the system after they retire as coaches or officials, but an estimated 30 per cent find themselves unemployed and unskilled, hunting for menial jobs in a competitive market to support their families.


They are told to be proud. They are told that they were a small cog in a great machine that brought glory to the motherland. But so many of them - like Zuo - feel more lost than proud. And they wonder what might have been had their natural sporting talents gone unnoticed while they were running around the school playgrounds.


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