CHINA - Citing the importance of education, sports celebrities in China are trying to reshape the traditional State-run sports cultivating system by establishing their own schools.
After fully investing their early years in the country's State-run system, in which athletes train full time without receiving an education, many sports stars, like tennis champion Li Na and hoops icon Yao Ming, returned to college. They have sought to make up those missed lessons to help them achieve a smooth transition to new roles in society.
Thus, building schools featuring a combination of academic and physical education has become a new off-court goal for Li and Yao.
"It's always been my dream (to establish a tennis academy) after retirement, and I hope children who specialise in tennis training could also learn academic courses as other students do in ordinary schools," Li told China Daily at the celebration of her Australian Open victory and new book launch on Saturday.
Li, who just ascended to a career-high world No 2 ranking following her successful Australian Open campaign, said she has had discussions with some potential partners about the academy project. However, she said, agreements have not been reached yet because of a "vast gap between ideal and reality".
After Li's Australian Open final, her agent, Max Eisenbud, tennis vice-president of International Management Group, told the media that IMG will look for a real estate company as Li's new sponsor to support her school ideas.
"School classes should be taught at the same time while practicing tennis, and I hope to cooperate with prestigious universities," said Li. "So children could have two options when they turn 18 - keep playing professionally or go to study in colleges."
Li, who started practicing tennis in the early 1990s with the Wuhan provincial team, did not receive much education until temporarily retiring in 2002 to study journalism at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.
The undergraduate programme gave Li a break from grinding competition and honed her public relations skills to better deal with media requests.
Boasting outspokenness and wit, Li was named the 2013 Ambassador of the Year of the International Tennis Writers Association before the Australian Open.
Her colorful post-match interviews at major international tournaments coupled with her fluent English have won praise from foreign media.
"Because of her success, there are big media demands on her time, and she handled this with great professionalism. She set a very good example to her fellow players," ITWA co-president Paul Newman said.
Yao, another international sports icon for China, echoed Li by kicking off the opening semester of his NBA Yao School at Beijing's Wukesong Basketball Park over the weekend.
Jointly launched by Yao and the National Basketball Association, the school features a 13-week extracurricular bilingual programme, which has attracted 200 children ages 6 to 16 to practice basketball skills while learning life lessons with each other.
"The key to the programme is to teach children the spirit of teamwork, respect of the game and rules, perseverance and a self-challenging attitude to foster a well-rounded personality for children," said Yao, who registered in Shanghai Jiao Tong University to learn finance and management after retiring in 2011.
The school was Yao's first initiative in youth education, but it won't be the last such undertaking.
NBA China CEO David Shoemaker revealed that more such joint programs and events will be brought to fruition in the future.
"The experience itself is unique (for the students) as they will compete and learn in a fun environment. They will learn a little bit of English and what it means to be a teammate, a good leader and to have confidence," he said.
Despite its prowess at the Olympics, China is not yet a world sports power in terms of athletes' overall development and mass fitness level.
On one hand, retired sports heroes struggle to find jobs after leaving the athletic spotlight due to their lack of education. On the other hand, many teenage students fail on fitness tests for lack of exercise while studying in the exam-oriented education system.
In 2007, media reported that Ai Dongmei, a champion marathon runner in 1999, was selling her medals to feed her family.
Meanwhile, obesity and myopia continued to increase among primary and middle school students, according to research results released last year by the Ministry of Education and General Administration of Sport.
Wu Wenqiang, assistant dean of Beijing Sport University's physical education school, said Li's and Yao's efforts to introduce all-round academic and physical education should be further promoted and emulated.