Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University has produced some notable alumni, from former Chinese president, Jiang Zemin to Yang Yuanqing, chairman of Lenovo, China’s largest PC maker.
But few have generated as much attention as one of its newest students. Yao Ming, the former NBA basketball star, began classes at the university last Monday, four months after he announced retirement from the sport. News reports say Yao’s schedule now includes plenty of mathematics, English and modern Chinese history.
“I feel good today, but a little bit tired since I have not been in class for over 10 years. I am rusty,” Yao joked with reporters after his first day of school. “When I was young I was very fond of learning history, so I was so eager to sit in the classroom to have my first history class in college today.”
As it turns out, the 31 year-old is a bit of a history buff, reading tales of Zhuge Liang, the famous statesman during the Three Kingdoms Period (see WiC52), during his childhood.
Thanks to his exceptional height, Yao was then plucked out of school at a young age and transferred to one of China’s state-run sports academies. By the age of 13, he was already playing full-time on the Shanghai Sharks’ junior basketball team.
Yao, who retired because of chronic injuries to his left foot, said he is now looking forward to applying his new education in his business and public service ventures, which range from ownership of the Shanghai Sharks basketball team to a multimillion-dollar charitable foundation. (Yao has also been campaigning to stop the consumption of shark fin in Chinese soups, see WiC124.)
Videos and photographs of the former NBA star in the classroom soon appeared on the Chinese internet, showing the 2.3 metre-tall Yao towering over his classmates and professors, squeezing in behind his desk (the school built a special chair for him) and having to bend down to write on a whiteboard.
The media frenzy has also turned his teachers into overnight celebrities. This week, Yao’s maths professor told the press that his famous student is “hardworking and studious” and “even offers to clean the whiteboard after class”.
But don’t expect Yao to be a full-time fixture on campus. To dampen media and fan interest, Yao will be taking some of his classes in one-on-one tutorials with professors, says Xinhua.
Meanwhile his fans took to weibo to show their support. “Yao’s hard working style and inquisitive attitude is truly inspiring! Thanks to role models like him, young people have someone they can look up to. Good luck!” one netizen wrote.
Another one was equally fulsome in his praise: “I really admire Yao Ming. He truly embodies the Chinese proverb: ‘Live and learn’.”
But others were more cynical, seeing Yao’s latest move as a ploy for publicity. “It’s obvious that this is a show. Yao told the reporters to follow him around campus. That’s how they managed to take these pictures of him in the classroom and even in one-on-one meetings with professors,” accused one netizen.
Yao says he doesn’t care what people think. “Studying is to enrich myself, not for others to see. I hope everybody will give me space. I don’t want too much extra needless pressure,” he asked in a televised interview last week.
Yao is not the first retired athlete to go back to school. Former Olympic and world table tennis champion Deng Yaping also spent 11 years studying at Tsinghua University, the University of Nottingham and then Cambridge University after her retirement in 1997.
Deng was recently in the limelight again after being named chief executive of jike.com, a People’s Daily-run search engine (see WiC80).
But retirement is not always smooth for former sports heroes, says the Global Times. Zou Chunlan, a female weightlifting champion, wasn’t even able to find a regular job after she retired in 1993, eventually working in a public bathhouse in 2003 for Rmb500 ($75) a month. Similarly, 28 year-old Zhang Shangwu, a former gymnastics champion, was recently revealed to be performing on the streets to earn a living.
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