His outstanding talent caught the eye of officials on the provincial team, who promised him a job at a state-owned company in the future – a decent offer at that time.China issues corruption warning after Sports Ministry inspectors visit training centres Over the next five years he spent up to 10 hours a day training, but realised very quickly that he would never make the medal podium himself.

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Like many of China’s current crop of talented athletes, who are looking forward to competing at this summer’s Rio Olympics, Li Gang once had dreams of gold-medal glory, too.

Today the overweight Li, 44, who was originally from Tieling, in northeastern China’s Liaoning province, looks anything but the outstanding teenage judo prospect he once was.

Rich and rested: China’s Li Na tops list of highest-earning retired women sports stars He was still a child when he was snapped up to join the Soviet-style state-run sports training system, which looks to find the champions of the future, Li was never a champion, and never found fame or riches.

He is poor – earning only 1,300 yuan (HK$1,500) a month from selling barbecued meats on the side of the street to support himself and his son, 23, in the provincial capital, Shenyang, reported.

But by the time she won her gold medal, Li – who had been forced to stay overweight so that he could pose a challenge to even the biggest judo training partner – had already ended his time on the team by then.

Suffering injuries, including severe hip pains, he turned his back on judo in 1990, and has barely told anyone about his past life, including his son.

Chinese tennis players need to be allowed to have fun outside of state-run system, says Li Na His “reward” proved to be a job at a state-owned food company.

Yet he was once a training partner to many of China’s best judo stars in the 1980s and 1990s, including Zhuang Xiaoyan, who won the women’s heavyweight judo gold medal at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.

Li’s sad story sheds light on the downside of the state-driven sporting system, which signs up talented athletes – sometimes as young as four – and removes them from their normal school so that they can be given special daily sports training.

'No regrets': Li Na signs off on tennis career before tearful Chinese journalists Yet the system, fully back by the government, ends up with only very few making the grade and – in later years –able to continue working as sports coaches and government officials.

Li’s mother told the newspaper she regretted sending him to join the provincial sports team after excelling in a provincial judo competition at the age of 14 in 1985.