Former Chinese kickboxing champion accused of being a loan shark, raising concerns about fate of retired athletes

Li Teng is a former kickboxing champion who is wanted by police for participating in an illegal lending scheme.
PHOTO: Handout

A former champion boxer is wanted by police in eastern China for suspicion of taking part in an illegal lending scheme and causing “intentional injury”.

The case has highlighted public misgivings about the fate of high-level athletes in China after they retire.

Li Teng, who is now 33 years old, is accused of being part of a 19-person gang led by Yu Jia, who has been detained.

The closing ceremonies of the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar, where Li won a gold medal. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

Police in Hefei, in Anhui province, said the group offered loans with extremely high interest rates and used violence to collect debts when clients could not pay back the money.

A police statement over the weekend read: “The police are seeking clues about the gang from the general public in order to complete a thorough investigation into the crimes they committed.”

Police have detained most of the gang, but Li, who is also wanted for “causing intentional injury”, is on the run, according to local newspaper Xinan Evening News.

From the city of Bozhou in Anhui, Li was the champion of the 56kg group in China’s National Sanda Championship in 2006. Later that year, he represented China in the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar and won gold.

He was the Anhui provincial champion in the youth categories between 2003 and 2005.

He last appeared in media reports in 2010 for a team boxing competition between China and Thailand in Guangdong.

Zhang Shangwu is a famous athlete in China who fell from grace after retiring. PHOTO: Handout

The fate of Li after he stepped away from boxing highlighted a concern in China, and across much of the world, that athletes struggle to transition to a more traditional lifestyle after they retire.

A major concern is that former athletes are unemployable because many give up their education at a young age to focus full-time on sports.

In China, one well-known example is Zhang Shangwu, who won two gold medals in gymnastics at the 2001 World University Games in Beijing, but fell victim to poverty, injury and unemployment after he retired.

In 2007, he was sentenced to fours years in prison for stealing in Beijing, and in 2019 he received a four-month jail term in Shanghai for a similar crime.

His story went public after he was found begging on the streets of Beijing after he was released from prison in 2011.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.