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Asian Journal of Exercise & Sports Science 2013 Vol. 10 (No. 2)

Original Article
Career Transitions and Social Mobility among
Chinese Elite Athletes

Fan Zhang
Tsinghua University
Flvia Cristina Drumond Andrade
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Jun Qiu
Tsinghua University
Weimo Zhu
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Abstract: Tis work investigates the socioeconomic factors infuencing career transitions
and social mobility among retired Chinese elite athletes. We address the impact of the reform
of Chinas elite sports system and the changes to the retirement policy on elite athletes
careers. We analyzed survey data collected in 2010 about retired Chinese elite athletes who
had formerly played professional sports on national or provincial teams (N=179, average
age=24.7, female=55%). Descriptive statistics and binomial and multinomial logistic
regressions were used in the analysis. Te results show that afer retirement, most athletes
(65%) attended college because fewer job opportunities were provided by the government.
Retirement at a higher age reduced the likelihood of attending college (RRR [relative risk
ratio] =0.75, 95% CI [confdence interval] =0.60-0.93). Higher family social status was
positively associated with fnding a job (RRR=4.50, 95% CI=1.06-19.13) or attending college
(RRR =7.44, 95% CI=1.88-29.42). Elite athletes with a college degree achieved higher
intragenerational upward mobility in their post-retirement jobs (OR [odds ratio] =12.24,
CI=2.40-62.35) than those without a college degree.
Keywords: China elite athletes, retirement, career transition, social mobility
Fan Zhang is a PhD candidate and Jun Qiu is a professor in the Department of Physical Education at
Tsinghua University. Flvia Cristina Drumond Andrade is an assistant professor and Weimo Zhu is a professor in
the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Corresponding author is Fan Zhang, Department of Physical Education, Tsinghua University, Hai Dian
District, Tsinghua Yuan, Beijing 100084, P.R. China,
Asian Journal of Exercise & Sports Science 2013 Vol. 10 (No. 2)
Te number of Chinese elite athletes has grown over the last two decades. Data from
Chinas Statistical Yearbook shows that the number of registered elite athletes increased from
16,588 in 1988 to 20,958 in 2010 (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 1988-2010), and
this trend continues to increase. Elite sports in China have been supported and regulated
by the government since the 1960s. Under the state-run sports system, high-ranking
performance in competitions is emphasized to present a positive national image to the
world and to increase internal confdence in Chinas ability to catch up to Western societies
(Brownell, 1995; Fan, Fan, & Lu, 2010).
Chinese elite athletes are usually recruited at an early age. Tey receive little
encouragement to focus on education (Lu, & Li, 2009). Nearly 30% of them abandon regular
education afer middle school; fewer than one-ffh have junior college degrees or higher
(19% in 2010) (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2010). Most of them attend sport-
focused schools, where athletic performance is overemphasized and academic study is
ofen ignored. Overall, Chinese elite athletes attain only low levels of education and engage
in highly intensive training routines. Some of them endure injuries and even disabilities.
However, careers in elite sports are short and career transitions ofen occur at a young age.
Young athletes face challenges afer they retire from their athletic careers.
In China, based mainly on their performance, athletes are classifed into fve categories:
international masters of sports, masters of sports, and frst-class, second-class, and third-
class sportsmen. All but third-class sportsmen are identifed as elite athletes and registered
by the Sports Committee. Te annual turnover rate of elite athletes is around 15%-20% as
set by the Sports Committee (Ji, 2007), with more than 3,000 athletes retiring from elite
sports every year (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2010).
Between the 1960s and 1990s, retired elite athletes enjoyed a high employment rate
because the government ofered job opportunities to the entire group. Similar to the
American Dream in the United States, being an elite athlete in China implied upward
social mobility through hard work and high athletic performance. However, in recent years,
this population has faced hurdles in career transitions, such as difculty in fnding jobs,
social discrimination, and downward social mobility (e.g., Cong, Sun, & Zhang, 2010; Ji,
2007; Lu, & Li, 2009; Ye, 2009).
Tis issue should be considered within Chinas broader sociocultural, political, and
economic context. In this article we address how the reform of Chinas elite sports system
and changes to its athlete retirement policy have afected the post-retirement careers of
elite athletes. We used empirical data to analyze current factors infuencing elite athletes
career transitions and social mobility. More specifcally, we focused on the impact of age
at retirement, gender, educational attainment, socioeconomic status, and the type of sports
on elite athletes career transitions (i.e., the decision to attend college vs. joining the work
force) and occupational social mobility (intra- and intergenerational mobility).
We started this study with six hypotheses: (a) age at retirement is negatively associated
with an athletes decision to attend college, (b) family social background is positively
associated with an athletes decision to attend college, (c) an athletes educational attainment
is positively associated with upward mobility, (d) a higher family social status increases
the likelihood of an elite athletes upward mobility, (e) participation in open skill sports
increases the possibility of an athletes upward mobility compared to closed skill sports, and
(f) males are more likely to experience upward social mobility.
Asian Journal of Exercise & Sports Science 2013 Vol. 10 (No. 2)
History of Chinese Athletes Career Transition
Chinas Elite Sports Reform
In the 1960s, elite sports were nationalized (Yan, 1989). Te government invested elite
athletes with specifc rights and obligations. It paid them salaries for training and competing,
provided human resources and fscal support, and ofered jobs afer retirement. At the
same time, the sports law required elite athletes to strive for higher athletic performance
and devote not only time and energy to China, but their honors and awards as well (Gu,
& Liu, 2008). Te concepts of striving for achievement, ultimate performance, and
sports miracle were emphasized by sports ofcials when determining retired athletes
career transitions and social mobility (Green, & Oakley, 2001). Te director of the General
Ofce in the National Sport Committee believed that the nationalization of elite sports was
responsible for Chinas rapid rise to becoming one of the largest sports powers (Yan, 1989),
as shown in the Olympic Games since 1984.
Te reform of the elite sports system started in 1993, along with the economic reform
from a planned economy to a market economy (Zhou, & Wu, 2001). Elite sports evolved
into two types: specialized sports oriented toward the government and representing the
nation and professional sports oriented toward the market (Ren, 2011). Tese two types
corresponded to the state leaders two coexisting forms (namely, socialism and capitalism)
(Deng, 1992). Tus, both government and market forces became involved in elite athletes
retirement and the employment opportunities provided by the government were greatly
reduced. Elite athletes registered with the national planning system when they joined
teams; their selection, education, training, and manner of competition were strictly under
the control of the government. However, they were pushed into the market afer retirement.
And now the convention of determining a retired athletes career according to his or her
athletic performance is being questioned (e.g., Ji, 2007).
Changes to the Elite Athlete Retirement Policy
National policies provide important guidance for elite athletes retirement transitions;
supplemental policies are formulated by each province. Te course of the reform of the
elite sports system can be divided into three stages according to changes in the national
retirement policies (Li, & Liu, 2011).
1949-1986. Te government was fully responsible for the retired elite athletes
employment. Providing jobs within sport institutions was considered frst, based on the
athletes aptitude assessments. In 1965, the government started providing opportunities to
study at several of Chinas sports colleges and universities. Tose athletes who retired at a
very early age were sent back into the normal education system. Te injured were entitled
to government compensation based on their injury status. It is worth noting that most of
the retired athletes preferred working over continuing their education. Policies in this stage
emphasized appropriate, suitable, and fair employment (Li, & Liu, 2011).
1987-2001. Te government started to provide fewer jobs but more educational
opportunities (Chen, 2004; Liu, Liu, & Xiong, 2010). A law was passed in 1986 that
provided one-time compensation to retired athletes who were not employed, indicating the
transformation of employment policy (National Sport Policy Research Ofce, 1987). In a
1999 law, the government lowered the criteria for college admission (General Administration
of Sport of China, 2003), aiming to alleviate employment pressure by encouraging college
Asian Journal of Exercise & Sports Science 2013 Vol. 10 (No. 2)
attendance. A study indicated that about half of the retired elite athletes were given jobs
within sports institutions or sports departments/organizations/agencies at diferent levels
of government, and that less than half went to college for further education at that time
(Zhong, 1998).
2002present. Te retirement employment system was transformed into a retirement
system, mainly because of the shrinkage of job opportunities. Te government began
encouraging retired elite athletes to fnd jobs by themselves (General Administration of
Sport, 2003). Subsequently, post-retirement training and economic compensation systems
were established. In 2002, Chinas Revised Policy for Retired Athlete provided guidance
on vocational training, compensation, admission to college, and supportive employment
policies to elite athletes.
In 2006, elite athletes were provided with unemployment insurance
because job and study opportunities were greatly reduced.
Te change in social environment greatly infuences athletes social mobility. Retired
athletes are facing greater challenges and fuctuations in career transitions because of their
lack of education and vocational skills (e.g., Cong et al., 2010; Huang et al, 2010; Ji, 2007;
Lu, & Li, 2009; Ye, 2009).
Factors Infuencing the Career Transitions and
Social Mobility of Elite Athletes
Considering the above, we wanted to explore the factors that currently infuence elite
athletes social mobility afer they retire from their athletic careers. Studies of similar issues
in Western societies quantifed the impact of ascribed factors (e.g., parental education and
occupation) and attained factors (e.g., education) in retired athletes career transitions
and social mobility, and showed that upward social mobility was associated with better
performance in competitive sports (Conzelmann, & Nagel, 2003; Eisen, & Turner, 1996;
Semyonov, 1986), higher educational attainment (Eisen, & Turner, 1996; Loy, 1972; Sack,
& Tiel, 1979), lower age at retirement (Fldesi, 2004), and selected characteristics of
the competitive sports (Fldesi, 2004; Sohi, & Yusuf, 1987; Tinley, 2002). Educational
attainment was shown to have a positive impact on elite athletes upward mobility (e.g.,
Eisen, & Turner, 1996; Houston, 1982; Semyonov, 1986). Retirement at a higher age was
associated with a lower likelihood of upward mobility among elite athletes (Fldesi, 2004).
Some studies also explored the relationship between the type of sports practiced and
career transitions. Sohi and Yusuf (1987), for example, demonstrated that elite athletes in
popular sports experienced more upward mobility, although other studies found no clear
relationship (e.g., Loy, 1972). Athletes who played strenuous physical sports (e.g., baseball,
football, track, and wrestling) may have more difculties in their career transitions (Tinley,
2002). Tere was also evidence that most athletes who engaged in vigorous sports were
recruited from blue-collar or farming families (Loy, 1972), which may have indirectly
infuenced their social mobility when they retired. Male athletes had an advantage over
female counterparts in fnding jobs and obtaining higher social status (Gilmore, 2008;
Wilson, 2007). Finally, elite athletes under communism seemed to have more upward
mobility than those under capitalism (Fldesi, 2004; Green, & Oakley, 2001).

According to the Revised Policy for Retired Athlete: Employment and Benefts, by the State General Administration
of Sport, the State Commission Ofce for Public Sector Reform, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Finance, the
Ministry of Human Resources, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, China 2002.
Asian Journal of Exercise & Sports Science 2013 Vol. 10 (No. 2)
Afer the elite sport reform and policy change, a number of Chinese studies addressed
the role of educational attainment and social capital (e.g., Chen, 2004; Cong et al., 2010; Ye,
2009), but few were based on quantitative analyses. Most studies in China did not go far
enough in acknowledging the factors that infuenced elite athletes career transitions and
social mobility. To fll these gaps, we investigated what paths the Chinese elite athletes took
in retirement and what infuenced their career transitions and social mobility afer the elite
sport reform and policy change.
Participants were former elite athletes who worked in the General Administration
of Sports or the Beijing Sports Administration.
Their skill levels were at the frst class
or higher. Their best performance in competitions was evaluated. The sample consisted
of 211 participants (116 females and 95 males, ages 18-45 years). A questionnaire was
administered to collect their age at retirement, gender, the type of sports they used to play,
educational level, and socioeconomic status (SES), as well as the education level and SES
of their fathers. The questionnaire was designed by fve experts from Tsinghua University
and Tongji University in China. The fnal sample included 179 respondents (24.74.24 yrs,
55% female) with completed data on the selected variables. Participants were informed
about the study objectives and that they could decline to participate.
Self-reported demographic measures (including current age, age at retirement, age
when participation in sports began, and gender) were employed in the analyses. Educational
attainment characteristics of the participants and their fathers were dichotomized as less
than college degree or college degree or higher. Te occupations of the retired athletes
and their fathers were coded according to the Beijing 2009 occupation prestige report (Li,
2009). Occupations were categorized as lower than middle class (occupation prestige scores
(OPS) <60 [reference group]) and middle class or higher (OPS60).
Sports were categorized into closed skill integrated and open skill integrated (closed
or open skill sports) following Galligan (2000), who argued that diferences in training
environments and skills infuenced athletes future careers. According to this classifcation,
closed skills integrated sports are events occurring in a stable, predictable environment
with movements following a set pattern and having a clear beginning and end (e.g.,
swimming, track, and shooting). In contrast, open skill integrated sports are characterized
by a constantly changing environment in which movements have to be continually adapted.
Tese sports are predominantly perceptual and rely on human interaction and cooperative
capability (e.g., soccer, tennis, and volleyball).
Tere were three categories for retirement path: college, employment, and
unemployment. Factors associated with attending college in the questionnaire were athletic
performance, parent/family resources and help, trainer/friend resources and help, and
academic ability. Te impact of each factor was measured by a self-rated, 5-point scale:
Elite athletes working in the General Administration of Sport comprise national teams. Tose who work in the Beijing
Sport Administration comprise the Beijing team. Te General Administration of Sport also selected elite athletes from the
provincial sport committee to compete in international games.
Asian Journal of Exercise & Sports Science 2013 Vol. 10 (No. 2)
extremely important, very important, moderately important, slightly important, and not
at all important. Occupational social mobility was dichotomized as either having upward
mobility or not. Factors associated with the employment path included job-related
skills, parent/family resources and help, trainer/friend resources and help, and athletic
performance. Te participants were asked to rate each factor using a 5-point scale ranging
from extremely important to not at all important.
Descriptive statistics for each variable was calculated. Categorical variables were
compared using chi-square tests and continuous variables were compared using t-tests.
Binomial and multinomial logistic regressions were performed to explore the career
transitions and social mobility among elite athletes. Data analyses were completed using
STATA version 11.2.
The descriptive statistics for the sample are shown in Table 1. We found that
participants began training and retired from athletic careers at young ages (8.803.15 yrs
and 20.442.58 yrs, respectively). Female athletes started training (average difference =
1.540.43 years, p<0.05) and retired (average difference = 0.830.36 years, p<0.05) earlier
than their male counterparts. The age at start of training (average difference = 4.880.38
years, p<0.01) and at retirement (average difference = 1.650.40 years, p<0.01) was earlier
for the athletes in closed skilled sports than in open skill sports. In terms of their fathers
level of education, 58% of the male athletes and 57% of the female athletes had fathers
who attained a college degree or higher. No statistical differences were found in family
background among genders or the type of sports in the chi-square tests.
Table 1
Characteristics of the participants according to gender and type of sports (N=179)
Gender Type of sports
Male Female p

Open skill
Closed skill
Age at start of training 9.643.02 8.103.07 0.001
12.471.84 7.592.48 0.001

Age at retirement 20.912.52 20.082.58 0.023
20.02 2.41 21.672.66 0.001

Father with college
degree or more
59.09% 57.14% 0.207
62.96% 55.78% 0.210

Father in middle class
or higher
54.26% 49.56% 0.501
64.71% 47.44% 0.782

p-value for differences between groups;
p-value of two sample t-test;
p-value of chi-square test.
Table 1
Characteristics of the Participants According to Gender and Type of Sports (N=179)
Afer retirement, 65% of the athletes pursued further education in college, 26% got
jobs, and the rest were unemployed. Te only statistical diference across the groups was
related to the fathers education (p=0.022) (Table 2).
We explored the infuence of these selected variables on retirement path using a
multivariate analysis based on multinomial logistic regression. In multivariate analyses, a
fathers higher educational attainment indicated a higher possibility of employment (RRR
[relative risk ratio] =4.50, 95% CI=1.06-19.13) or college attendance (RRR=7.44, 95%
CI=1.88-29.42) versus unemployment (Table 3). Higher age at retirement was associated
with a lower possibility of college attendance versus unemployment (RRR=0.75, 95% CI
0.60-0.93) (Table 3). Of those athletes who decided to attend college, 56% highlighted their
Asian Journal of Exercise & Sports Science 2013 Vol. 10 (No. 2)
parents help as extremely important or very important. In comparison, high percentages of
athletes rated former athletic performance and academic ability as moderately important in
their decision to attend college (55% and 75%, respectively).
Table 2
Characteristics of the participants according to retirement path
Elite athletes retirement path

Attend College
(N =47)
(N =15)
Female 57.14% 54.35% 40.00%
Open skill sports 23.91% 24.63% 33.33%
Father with college degree or more
61.42% 54.55% 21.43%
Father in middle class or higher 54.35% 49.61% 53.33%
Chi-square comparison was performed. Statistical differences were found among the three groups

Table 2
Characteristics of the Participants According to Retirement Path
Table 3
Multinomial logistic regression results: Retirement path of Chinese elite athletes
Retirement path
a, b

Attend college Employment
RRR p-value 95% CI RRR p-value 95% CI
Male 2.29 0.188 0.67-7.88 2.59 0.154 0.70-9.56
Open skill sports

1.07 0.924 0.29-3.94 0.55 0.414 0.13-2.29
Age at retirement 0.75 0.008 0.60-0.93 1.00 0.970 0.80-1.23
Fathers with college degree or more 7.44 0.004 1.88-29.42 4.50 0.042 1.06-19.13
The baseline is unemployment;
The reference groups are female, closed skill sports, and fathers with
less than college degree.

Table 3
Multinomial Logistic Regression Results: Retirement Path of Chinese Elite Athletes
Of those who found a job afer retirement, 58% experienced upward intergenerational
mobility compared to their fathers occupation status. In the binomial logistic regression
analysis, none of the selected variables were statistically signifcant in elucidating the
intergenerational upward mobility (Table 4). Athletes experiencing intragenerational
upward mobility compared to their social position as athletes comprised 51% of participants,
39% experienced downward mobility, and the rest remained unchanged. Athletes who
engaged in open skill sports experienced more intragenerational upward mobility than
those in closed skill sports. A college degree contributed positively to upward mobility
(OR=12.24, 95% CI=2.90-78.10).
In analyses of the retired athletes job search process (available upon request), 68%
of athletes graded their former performance as very important or extremely important
when searching for jobs. A large portion of the athletes rated help from parents (79%) and
help from trainers/friends (81%) as very important or extremely important in fnding jobs.
However, 73% of them were not satisfed with their current jobs (64% among those who
experienced upward mobility vs. 88% among those who experienced downward mobility
or no change, p=0.056).
Asian Journal of Exercise & Sports Science 2013 Vol. 10 (No. 2)
Table 2
Characteristics of the Participants According to Retirement Path
The results strongly support our hypotheses. Most of the elite athletes attended college
after retirement (65%), whereas 26% found jobs. The decision by elite athletes to attend
college after retiring from sports was infuenced by two things. First, college attendance
was offered as an alternative to employment in the current retirement policy. Second, a
large number of elite athletes retired before they reached college age (20.442.58 years) or
satisfed the educational requirements. The number of athletes deciding to attend college
is higher now than in the period prior to the policy change in 2002, when most athletes
preferred to enter the job market at very young ages and accepted job offers from the
We found that athletic performance was not a determinant of Chinese athletes career
transitions, contrary to the fndings of previous studies (e.g., Zhong, 1998). A unique fnding
of this study is that the familys social status played an important role in the athletes
careers. A higher level of educational attainment by the father was positively associated
with an athletes decision to attend college or to seek employment. As well, more than
50% of the athletes regarded help from parents as very important or extremely important
in attending college. On the other hand, 75% of the participants believed that academic
ability had only a moderate important effect on their decision to attend college, which is
sharply different from fndings in the United States in which academic ability was regarded
as very important (Weber, 2007). This difference can probably be attributed to the fact that
Chinese elite athletes are permitted to enter college with less academic preparation than
non-athletes, often without even taking university entrance exams (Liu, 2009).
In our study, retired elite athletes experienced more intergenerational upward mobility
(58%) than downward mobility (37%) after entering the job market. Slightly more than half
experienced intragenerational upward mobility (51%) and 39% experienced downward
mobility. This shows that being an elite athlete in China confers advantages in moving up
the hierarchy, although there are associated disadvantages (e.g., low education, reduced
government employment opportunities, etc.).
A higher level of education increases the likelihood of upward mobility after the career
transition. Educational requirements, especially the need to have a college degree to qualify
Table 3
Multinomial Logistic Regression Results: Retirement Path of Chinese Elite Athletes
Table 4
Binomial logistic regression results: Intergenerational and intragenerational mobility of Chinese elite athletes
after retirement
Upward mobility
a, b

Intergenerational Intragenerational
OR p-value 95% CI OR p-value 95% CI
Male 0.44 0.317 0.09-2.18 3.03 0.175 0.57-16.04
Open skill sports 0.96 0.973 0.14-6.59 7.86 0.029 1.02-60.50
Athletes with college degree or more 0.21 0.084 0.04-1.23 12.24 0.001 2.40-62.35
Fathers in middle class or higher 25.69 0.072 3.94-167.42 1.07 0.223 0.25-4.60
The baseline is no upward mobility compared to athlete as occupation;
The reference groups are
female, closed skill sports, athletes education less than college degree and fathers occupation status
(lower than middle class).

Table 4
Binomial Logistic Regression Results: Intergenerational and Intragenerational Mobility of
Chinese Elite Athletes Afer Retirement
Asian Journal of Exercise & Sports Science 2013 Vol. 10 (No. 2)
for the job market, have become more stringent in recent years. As such, educational and
vocational training are particularly important to help elite athletes fnd better jobs and
become upwardly mobile.
Notably, Chinese athletes also highlighted the importance of support from trainers
and friends in fnding jobs. Although this study did not specifcally address the role of the
social network, known as guanxi
in China, other studies have indicated that the social
network could play an important role in labor allocation and social mobility in China (Bian,
1997, 2002).
As reported in previous studies, retirement at a higher age was associated with
a lower probability of entering college (versus the probability of being employed or
unemployed) (Fldesi, 2004). Participation in open skill sports is associated with athletes
intragenerational upward social mobility compared to those in closed skill sports. Further
studies are necessary to better address the connections between types of sports and social
Finally, our results indicated no diferences in career transitions and social mobility
between the female and male cohorts. Of the athletes who attended college afer retirement,
approximately 75% chose physical education as their major (74%), implying that they
expected to continue training in college afer retirement.
Tis fnding corroborates a
previous study showing that elite athletes who retired at higher ages are more likely to fnd
jobs related to sports (Zhong, 1998).
Tis study had the following limitations: First, the sample studied was mainly from
retired elite athletes in Beijing, a group that is not representative of the entire population
of athletes in China. Second, data about career transitions and social mobility were based
on retrospective self-reports, a method that may have introduced recall bias. Finally, the
sample size in this survey is relatively small. Future research should be conducted using a
larger, more representative group.
Tis study revealed some important factors in Chinese elite athletes current careers and
their social mobility afer retiring. It showed that most Chinese elite athletes attend college
afer retiring and that family social background has a large infuence on their retirement
path. In addition, we found that a higher level of educational attainment has a signifcant
impact on retired elite athletes upward social mobility in China, which is consistent with
fndings from previous studies in the United States.
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