The furor surrounding some of China's top athletes at the London Olympics has put the spotlight on the nationwide, state-backed training system that handpicks and fine-tunes the best talent with a single aim: to bring home more gold medals than anyone else.
Former top Chinese gymnast Zhang Shangwu was found begging on the streets of Beijing as the 2012 Olympics opened in London last week in a desperate bid to make ends meet after a tendon injury ruled him out of the Athens Games.
Zhang, who never fully recovered, retired in 2005 with just a small pay-out from the government, but with no qualifications, and still suffering the effects of his injury.
After serving a stint in prison, he was recognized by a fan after selling his medals for just U.S. $17.
Zhang told RFA's Cantonese service that athletes who bring home silver or bronze medals are locked out of an array of rewards and benefits showered on their gold-winning teammates.
"If you don't win a gold medal, you could end up in the same situation as me," Zhang said. "The government won't really take much care of you."
"You will lack certain material benefits, and you will be worse off than a regular person," said Zhang, who missed out on a good education in spite of the many years of physical training he endured.
"After you retire, you just go back where you came from, but with no knowledge or skills to support you," he said.
"Such athletes may have trained their whole lives, and in the end they get nothing for it."
'The only standard'
According to Zhang, the Chinese state-backed sporting bureaucracy regards an Olympic gold medal as the only standard for judging its athletes.
Athletes who won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were given tens of millions of yuan in bonuses and goods from sponsors, while silver medalists received next to nothing, he said.
"That's the way the Chinese sports system works," Zhang said. "They will only respect the people who win gold ... and they will reap the full benefits; that's the way it goes."
Athletes who don't win gold can be ostracized, along with their whole family, by officials in their hometowns, as in the recently reported case of former Olympic weightlifter Wu Jingbao.
A sports reporter with the official Xinhua news agency said on Monday that the authorities watched Wu's performance in London on television together with his elderly parents at a hotel reception.
When Wu only won a silver medal, the room emptied immediately, leaving Wu's elderly parents without a ride back to their remote mountain village, reporter Zhang Zhilong said.
While super-fast swimmer Ye Shiwen appears to have ridden out a tide of suspicious questions surrounding her astonishing performances leading to two gold medals, badminton player Yu Yang appeared to cave in to pressure this week, quitting the sport via her Twitter-like blog account after she and a teammate were disqualified for throwing qualifying round matches.
A veteran Chinese sports journalist, who gave only his surname Li, said Chinese athletes who didn't bring home gold medals would get less favorable media coverage when they returned home.
"The various media reactions vary, but they are more likely to focus on the gold-medal winners," Li said. "They probably won't investigate the personal stories of the silver and bronze medalists."
The badminton debacle has made netizens more likely to question the decisions of coaches and the system as a whole, while some have passed around unverified photographs showing young children crying in pain during apparent sports training sessions.
Fujian blogger Fan Yanqiong said China's sports regime is entirely geared towards national glory.
"They're not telling us that we should take part in sports, or stimulating an interest in sports among the entire population so as to improve everyone's health," she said.
"This is all just about satisfying the vanity and honor of our leaders."
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.