China's path to Olympic glory is littered with a human toll - athletes who failed to make their sport's top ranks. The country now has tens of thousands of retired athletes whose single-minded dedication to their sport never prepared them for life after the competition was over.

In the second story in our Olympic series, NPR's Louisa Lim profiles one of those athletes.

(Soundbite of coughing)

LOUISA LIM: Zhao Yonghua is only 31 years old, but her lifestyle is that of someone much, much older. As her mother talks, she's lying in bed in their bare room in Tonghua Town in northeastern China covered by a quilt despite the summer sunshine. She has an IV in her arm and she's too tired to speak. This is how she has spent much of the last 10 years. It's hard to believe this bedridden invalid was once a national skiing champion.

Ms. ZHAO YONGHUA (National Skiing Champion): (Through translator) My life then was just training. We trained at dawn, in the morning, in the afternoon, even in the evening. We didn't really do any school work.

LIM: Her mother, Sun Fuyou, rifles through faded photos showing a beaming young girl in ski gear.

Ms. SUN FUYOU (Mother): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: She was just 13 years old when she left home to join the army team, her mother says. That was once seen as a preferable path to athletic glory because of the honor of being a soldier and the material benefits.

In 1997, she won four gold medals at the national championships, then she got sick. Initially the army coaches said she just had a cold. She ended up in the hospital with serious diabetes. Her mother remembers what happened next.

Ms. SUN: (Through translator) When she left hospital, I asked the army if I could take her home to convalesce because her diabetes was so serious, but they said she had to go for winter training with the army team in northeastern China. When I left, she saw me off at the station and we both cried.

LIM: Despite her perilous health, Zhao won a gold medal and a bronze a year later. But the training took its toll, and soon after she was forced to retire from skiing. When I ask her if her illness is a result of her training, she doesn't stop to think.

Ms. ZHAO: (Through translator) Of course they're related. Because when you have diabetes, you're easily tired. And training is extremely intense. Every day you're exhausted.

LIM: At that time most athletes were assigned jobs or given compensation when they retired from sport. Zhao was given around $1,000 but was never found a job, despite repeated pleas. Eventually she ran out of money to treat her diabetes properly. This brought complications. Her sight began to fail and last year she was on the brink of blindness. Her mother describes her mood.

Ms. SUN: (Through translator) Zhao bought a bottle of pesticide and wanted to commit suicide. I persuaded her not to, telling her heaven never seals off all the paths. You are so young. So we decided to sell one of her gold medals.

LIM: The sale for around $3,000 was organized by Ji Ting, heard here in her office at the Olympic Star Security Fund in Beijing. She set up this charity with the Chinese Red Cross specifically to help athletes in trouble. No one knows how many there are.

But the China Sport Daily estimated 80 percent of the country's retired 300,000 athletes end up jobless, injured or in poverty. It's become such an issue that last year the government set aside $4 million to provide welfare and vocational training for professional sports people.

But Ji Ting fears many might still miss out.

Ms. JI TING (Founder, Olympic Star Security Fund): (Through translator) There might be some difficulties in implementation. Because there's such a huge group of Chinese athletes, I don't think it can cover every one of them.

LIM: Another victim of China's sports system works for the fund now - 27-year-old former marathon runner Ai Dongmei. Her feet were crippled by years of overtraining.

Ms. AI DONGMEI (Former Marathon Runner): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Speaking in a low voice, she says things are good now. She had tried to sue her coach for inhumane treatment but ended up settling out of court. She had also suffered poverty; reduced to selling popcorn to make ends meet. But she tells me she's married with a 2-year old daughter.

That remains an impossible dream for ex-skier Zhao Yonghua, whose mother is brutally frank about her prospects.

Ms. SUN: (Through translator) She has such a serious illness, no one would want her. Other girls have boyfriends, get married, bear children. My daughter just lies in bed all day.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: At the foot of Zhao Yonghua's bed, the elderly television blares. It's pretty much her only entertainment. Weakened from overtraining, she failed as a sports star. But China's sports system also failed her. Cushioning her from everyday life, it used her and spat her out, leaving her with little formal education, no useful skills, and isolated from the wider society.

Ms. ZHAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I sacrificed my health and my youth, she admits.

In fact, like so many thousands of China's discarded athletes, her future too has been sacrificed on the altar of national pride.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

AMOS: And tomorrow, we'll hear how China plans to capture more gold medals than any other country this year.

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