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China excels at the Paralympics, but its disabled citizens are fighting for access


China has dominated the medal count at the last five consecutive Paralympic Games. Beijing is hosting the next Paralympics this coming March. So why do the country's athletes with disabilities excel? NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China's first-ever Paralympic medalist got her start because of a brawl. It was 1982, and Ping Yali was working in a Beijing rubber factory when another woman took a swing at her.

YALI PING: (Through interpreter) I saw the woman and the man fighting, so I went to protect the woman, but she punched me instead. I was young and hotheaded, so I jump into the fray.

FENG: Luckily for her, at that very moment, a group of government inspectors was touring her factory. They were looking for athletes to fill the country's first-ever Paralympic team.

PING: (Through interpreter) One of the officers saw me throw a punch and thought my movements were very lively and my form quite good.

FENG: They recruited Ping, and she began training in sprints and, later, the long jump. Ping is blind, though she can sense light just enough to stay somewhat oriented on a track and field pitch. In 1984, she flew to Los Angeles to compete in China's first-ever Paralympic Games. And she won gold, the first Chinese athlete to do so.

PING: (Through interpreter) I hugged my coach with open arms and began shouting to him in joy, which embarrassed my coach, who tried to push me away.

FENG: Ping's win spurred China to spend more money on Paralympic training. Here's Susan Brownell, an anthropology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who studies big sporting events.

SUSAN BROWNELL: China sort of was always behind disabled athletes as an acceptable symbol of China's modernity and of its morality and its ethics and its - you know, that the government cares for the people, I think, was a point.

FENG: Brownell says China is eager to highlight the prominent state support their Paralympic athletes receive, unlike in many other countries, including the U.S., where Paralympic and Olympic training is self-funded.

BROWNELL: Now, they've become that much more savvy about utilizing the Games as a platform to promote their national image, which is something they're very conscious of.

FENG: Chinese Paralympic athletes are managed by a state sports ministry. Here's one of their employees, who did not want to be named because they're not authorized to speak to the media.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We have training centers for the disabled in each province, from which qualified athletes are selected through competition to train nationally.

FENG: It's like a pyramid. At the bottom are hundreds of local training centers for the disabled, from which the most gifted are chosen at an early age to train with state sponsorship. The best make it to the national team.

But the system also reflects a paradox because while China supports Paralympic athletes, regular persons with disabilities still face extreme hurdles in accessing jobs and public spaces in China.

MERCY XIE: I had a car accident when I was 4 years old, right? And I lost my right leg when I was 4 years old. So teacher just tell my mom, so your kids is not OK for our school because we don't have the accessible facility for her.

FENG: This is Mercy Xie, now a doctoral candidate in disability law at Syracuse University. She and her mother fought hard to win entrance at the local public school in China so she wouldn't have to go to a special school for the disabled.

XIE: They were usually very far away from the city, the home. And you cannot back home every day with your family, and that's one thing. And another thing is if you go to the special school, you cannot take the university entrance examination.

FENG: Meaning she would be barred from a university degree. In 2017, China passed a law which integrates students with disabilities into all public schools and thus universities. It was a huge step forward, says Chen Bo, a law professor at the Macau University of Science and Technology. But he says China still uses more of a charity model when conceptualizing disability.

BO CHEN: Charity model is more like the people with disabilities are the subject of the pity and the subject of the charity.

FENG: ...Rather than receiving real inclusion. The law is relatively new, so only about 400,000 of China's approximately 85 million persons with disabilities, or less than half a percent, went to public schools with fully abled people. Ironically, this educational separation may actually advantage China's state athletic apparatus.

CHEN: This course is a one of the few options person with disabilities they can get - they can't receive resources from the state.

FENG: The growing visibility of the Paralympics here has sparked more discussion about disability, but in a way that Chen doesn't necessarily see as productive.

CHEN: You know, the stigma could be raised as you have to work hard, you have to train hard, you have to achieve something in order to be accepted as an equal member of the society.

FENG: Ping Yali, the Paralympic gold medalist, is painfully familiar with how hard disabled people have to work for their success in China.

PING: (Through interpreter) Paralympians have already been honed by extreme hardship. So now that China has given us the opportunity and cared for us, we've won a ton of medals.

FENG: Ping says that hardship has made them tougher and given them an advantage over athletes from other countries.

PING: (Through interpreter) Foreign Paralympians haven't suffered like us.

FENG: According to public statistics, funding for Paralympics in China is still less than half of that for Olympic athletes. It wasn't until Beijing secured the bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics that Paralympians got their own facilities. Ping remembers in the 1980s, she had to borrow the Olympic training facilities.

PING: (Through interpreter) At 11 a.m., when the able-bodied athletes went for lunch time, we hurried in to train during their breaks. Even today, the conditions for able-bodied and disabled athletes are not equal, but they've improved a lot.

FENG: Ping's life is emblematic of the gap between Paralympic support and actual disability access. After winning her gold medal, she fell in financial hard times. She was paid just a fraction of what Olympic athletes were paid. She ended up opening massage parlors run by blind masseurs to earn a living. For years, China didn't recognize her as its first Olympic gold medalist. That honor went to an able-bodied athlete who won a gold in sharpshooting more than a month after Ping. But Ping's plucky. She's never stopped pushing for disability access. For example, she was the first person in China to get a licensed guide dog, a Golden Retriever named Lucky.

PING: (Through interpreter) Lucky and I used to go out together and surmount obstacles against the disabled. Blind people like us are no longer satisfied simply to have enough food to eat. We want to be treated just like everyone else.

FENG: And she's thankful for sports. It's given her a life she would not have had otherwise. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAP COTTON'S "ROSA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.