Technical knockout

China’s best boxer spars with his government

Technical knockout

But Zou's patriotism may be flagging

“The way of the amateur is the only one to provide satisfactory results,” declares the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge in a famous scene from the Oscar-winning film, Chariots of Fire.

In the case of Zou Shiming, the Chinese government would wholeheartedly agree with the Cambridge don.

But Zou himself sees it somewhat differently. Indeed, the 27 year-old boxer is squaring up with his government over his ambitions to go professional.

Zou is a boxing prodigy and fights in the light flyweight category (meaning he weighs less than 48kg). He won the nation’s 50th gold medal in last year’s Olympics, and prior to that had fought his way to two World Amateur Championship titles and a gold at the Asian Games.

But now he wants to go pro. In an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel he said: “If given the chance, I hope to enter the arena of world professional boxing, and with my fists become world champion – winning the coveted gold sash that a Chinese has never got.” But as Der Spiegel points out, while Zou would like to earn the big bucks derived from professional boxing, “the government will not allow him”.

Zou, whose style of fighting is unusually graceful and incorporates some of the kung-fu training of his youth has been approached by the promoters. Don King, the industry veteran, has offered him $1 million to fight in America in the first of a series of professional fights intended to lead to a world title bid.

But according to Caijing magazine, government officials are insisting that Zou must retain his amateur status till at least 2012 so that he can defend his gold at the London Olympics.

Only amateur boxers can participate in Olympic events and the Chinese government takes the view that since it has trained Zou for Olympic glory from an early age it is owed a return on its investment. In effect, the bureaucrats deem him the property of the nation, and have made clear he can only ‘sell’ his amateur status when they think fit. And at a price of their making. Caijing reports one official as questioning: “Is Zou worth only $1 million?”

The boxer knows an unreceptive government can block his ambitions. So he remains, in a somewhat irritable state, in his homebase of Guizhou, playing online computer games, and taking exams for the Shanghai University of Sport. And according to Caijing, his financial status worries him. He owes Rmb140,000 on a newly purchased house, but his monthly income from the government is a mere Rmb2,000. Because boxing is ‘unprofessionalised’ in China, he has made little income from endorsements and sponsorships.

But perhaps the most the frustrating aspect of it all is how elusively close Zou is to his pot of gold. There are many who believe he could match the earning potential of basketball star, Yao Ming. That’s because CCTV recently conducted a survey which discovered professional boxing has 40 million fans in China – and that’s with almost no coverage or promotion. The Hangzhou Daily predicts that if Zou could win the world title, there would be an explosion of interest and earning potential.

But with no sign of the government relenting, Zou’s ambitions (and his bank balance) will likely be held in check till after 2012.

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