Great leap forward in welfare for also-rans
The Chinese public has got used to the two faces of mainland athletes. Some are all-conquering heroes, winning one gold medal after another and earning the country much-sought-after pride and themselves considerable amounts of money. At the other end of the spectrum, though, there is a mass of deserted also-rans, left out in the cold after failing to deliver enough glory to the motherland.
The plight of the lesser names, who make up a vast majority of the athletes churned out by the country's state-funded sports programmes, has caught the media's - and the public's - attention.
The story of Zou Chunlan, a former women's weightlifting national champion who ended up as a masseuse in a public bathhouse in Jilin, stirred much comment - and sympathy - on the mainland.
But when former long distance runner Ai Dongmei put her hard-earned medals up for auction earlier this year to help feed her family, the whole country sat up and took notice of the all-or-nothing sports system.
In a response to calls for reform, the authorities took their first tentative steps last week to introduce welfare measures for those who are part of the mainland's massive sports machine.
In a decree issued jointly by six ministerial-level bodies, including the State General Sports Administration and the Ministry of Finance, a variety of social benefits will be doled out to athletes, both active and retired.
These benefits include mandatory - and free-of-charge - vocational training to help smooth the path from full-time athlete to ordinary, working member of the public.
Contracts between athletes and their sports' governing bodies will also be standardised across all disciplines to ensure that sportsmen and women are treated fairly both during and after their playing days.
Adding medical insurance to the athletes' benefits is the most welcome reform of all. The hard work and training required to produce award-winning performances often leave their mark through injuries, some of which dog athletes for life.
That is something the runner Ai knows all about. The 26-year-old former Beijing International Marathon champion has had her feet disfigured as a result of rigorous training for years. She cannot recall if her contract with the Huo Che Tou Sports Association - the sports arm of the Ministry of Railways - covered medical expenses.
'I was too young, under 18, when I signed the document. Plus, I was only shown the contract once and was not allowed to keep a copy,' said Ai. 'But one thing is for sure, I had to pay for my own medical expenses for a long time after retirement.'
Admittedly, at the time Ai signed her contract, most mainlanders didn't know they had the right to ask employers to pay for medical coverage. But with much of the population now enjoying at least some level of social security, Ai and her former colleagues are still struggling to be included in the system.
After widespread media reports on Ai's auction of her medals, the runner said she was given a social security card by the authorities. But she hasn't had the opportunity to use the card yet, so has no idea how much, if any, money has been deposited by the government into her medical account.
'I was told it was a temporary measure and I would have to go through a formal registration,' said Ai, who was offered free treatment on her injured feet by a Beijing hospital. 'But I have heard nothing since. All I am told is that I have to wait [for formal registration].'
As for the reforms announced last week, Ai has little confidence that they will make any real difference.
'It's a matter of execution,' she said. 'I have nothing against the reforms - especially the job-training requirement, which I think is a very good initiative. But we will have to judge the reforms only after we see how effective they have been.'
That's a perception shared by Wei Jizhong, the former Chinese Olympic Committee chairman.
'The decree [issued last week] is a step in the right direction,' Wei said. 'The government might have invested a lot in an athlete's career, but the government also owes that athlete plenty. This debt needs to be repaid through these benefits.'
Looking to the future, Wei added: 'Sports rely heavily on parents allowing their children to enter the system. With no effective welfare system in place, parents don't have that incentive to encourage their children to engage in sports.
'Even with the decree, in such a vast country, you can't ensure everything is implemented wholeheartedly all the way down the chain.'
Wei drew parallels with other policies that were rolled out by the central government only to be blocked or changed by lower-level authorities.
'Beijing lifted agricultural taxes and introduced subsidies for peasants, but governments at village or county level would either dither about giving the exemption or invent new tricks to exploit the farmers, forcing the central government to inject direct financial assistance. I wouldn't be surprised if a similar scenario arises in this case.'
In fact, in places like Shanghai, athletes are already entitled to basic social welfare, in addition to average monthly salaries of around 3,000 yuan, said a retired athlete based in the city. The income and benefits, along with performance-linked bonuses awarded to medal winners in domestic and international competitions, can make for a decent life.
'But you never know what happens on the ground in provinces like Gansu and Ningxia. It all depends on circumstances in different provinces, or different areas within the same province,' said Wei.
'So I'm expecting more detailed, locality-based guidelines that turn the essence of the reforms into feasible measures.'
But not everyone has that kind of patience. Many argue the government should loosen its control on sports after next year's Olympics, making way for a market-based system like that in much of the rest of the world. Yet according to Wei, there is no such overhaul in sight.
'I don't think this idea will see the light of day,' said Wei.
'We Chinese are pragmatic. The state-funded sports system might have a lot of flaws but it is successful generally. It has generated 114 gold medals in Olympics [winter and summer combined]. There is no reason rationale strong enough to overhaul the entire mechanism.'
Great haul of the people
The number of summer and winter Olympic medals won by Chinese athletes: 114