“I’m sorry, I really can’t jump anymore, I’ve decided to retire.” This is the message that Chinese high jumper Zhang Guowei left on his Weibo in early April. Zhang Guowei was one of the most promising high jumpers in the country, with an ambition to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. Zhang’s retirement became a surprise for many track and field fans following his appearances.
But it is certainly not the end of the story. Zhang Guowei made it into media spotlights just two months after his retirement. He now has a more prosperous business to run – his social media.
Unlike many other prominent Chinese athletes, Zhang is not decorated with medals and recognition. The Chinese high jumper never won a world championship title. The best performance record for Zhang came in 2015. With a performance of 2.33 meters, Zhang secured a silver medal in the World Championship in Beijing. Zhang competed twice in the Olympics in 2012 and 2016, but was not able to pass the qualification round to reach the finals.
Track and field events are not considered Chinese athletes’ strong suit, and without groundbreaking results and achievements, it is rather unexpected that an athlete like Zhang Guowei could attract so much attention in China. As of June 9th, Zhang Guowei’s Weibo account had more than 3.7 million followers. And browsing through Zhang’s Weibo content, it is hard to tell whether he is a professional track and field athlete, or a comedian trying to grab people’s attention.
Zhang Guowei’s high jumping career reached its peak in 2015, the year he won a silver medal in the World Championship. His performances started to decline in the years after. In early 2020, Zhang’s best performance result was merely 2.28m, 5cm short of the qualifying mark to the Olympics. As the Tokyo Olympics were officially postponed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, Zhang Guowei’s goal of competing in the Olympics for the third time was becoming more and more difficult to attain.
Zhang Guowei is taking on a path that drastically differs from the rest of his peers. Chinese state media Xinhua News showed the retired high jumper’s video clips where he is cosplaying Japanese cartoon characters and demonstrates his pre-game dances. Instead of becoming an athlete, Zhang Guowei is becoming an entertainer with an active presence on social media. Zhang is making a rapid change from a former professional athlete to a social media influencer.
“His every post on his Weibo account can receive hundreds of comments and likes from his over three million followers,” a report from Xinhua said about his influence on the Internet. The retired high jumper also appeared in a series of TV programs along with other retired athletes.
Despite being commanded by Chinese state media, Zhang Guowei’s active social media profile was not appreciated by the country’s sports administration officials. In March 2019, the Chinese Athletics Association decided to ban Zhang from participating in all domestic and international competitions. The association accused Zhang of taking part in ‘unapproved commercial engagements’, and claimed that Zhang’s behavior seriously affected the team’s training and set a bad example.
Zhang Guowei was not the only athlete who faced disciplinary action for such reasons. Chinese swimmer Ning Zetao and former Olympic champion Tian Liang were also removed from the Chinese national team because of similar issues.
The Chinese sports administration officials set out strict rules on the athletes’ opportunities to engage in commercial and entertainment activities. While defending their policies by emphasizing maintaining high discipline and ensuring training results, such policies are also making it hard for athletes to transition to different careers after their retirement.
After retiring from high-performance competitions, Zhang Guowei achieved a major goal in his second career of becoming an Internet celebrity. On the Chinese short video platform Douyin, Zhang has attained 230 million likes for all his funny videos and unorthodox ideas.
Critics claim that Zhang did not present himself as a positive role model for others to follow, and attributed his declining performances to those videos which distracted the high jumper from achieving better results. Yet in the industry of Internet celebrities and social media influencers, it is rare that anyone could achieve this much.
There will be a day in the life of any professional athlete when they will no longer be able to maintain their best performances because of age, injuries and other factors. And for many other Chinese athletes going through the country’s sports administration system, their fate after retirement is somewhat unclear. Some become coaching staff and sports professionals, others may have the chance to become sports officials in the government. But for athletes with average performance, life after retirement is often very different. Without a stable source of income or social security, some of them end up begging on the streets.
The rise of short video and social media certainly offered Zhang Guowei a unique opportunity to explore unchartered territories. When it comes to life post retirement from high-performance sports, he offered an alternative path for many athletes. With his video clips from mocking Kung Fu moves to ‘drinking cokes’, Zhang successfully gives people something that high jumps can rarely offer – joy and laughter.