Thirteen years ago, gymnast and gold medalist Sang Lan was seriously injured in New York while preparing for the 4th Goodwill Games. The poor medical care that followed resulted in lifelong paralysis. Losing the use of her torso and legs made a bitter end to her rising sports career.
On April 28, her team of nine lawyers filed a lawsuit for $1.8 billion in compensation in the US, naming three people and five institutions.
But will she be able to win a lawsuit that is so late in coming?
For Sang, who devoted her whole childhood to Chinese sports, it’s not about winning or losing – it’s how you play. Her lawsuit is a message to the world’s sporting event hosts and the State’s General Administration of Sports.
Looking back on her life, 29-year-old Sang Lan is filled with regret.
The former professional gymnast trained her whole childhood for the chance to shine at the World Championships or at the Olympic Games. But her only achievement was a gold medal in the women’s vaulting horse event at the Eighth National Games in 1997.
Her dreams were shattered due to poor medical care following a terrible accident at the 1998 Goodwill Games in New York. She was paralyzed from the chest down.
Now Sang is seeking justice.
Her nine lawyers, headed by the New York-based attorney Hai Ming, filed a lawsuit on her behalf in Manhattan’s federal court on April 28.
The defendants named are AOL Time Warner Inc, the US Gymnastics Federation, TIG Insurance Co and two legal guardians who were supposed to look after Song following the accident.
Hai said TIG Insurance’s failure to provide medical care for Sang is the cause of her permanent disability, and that AOL Time Warner and the US Gymnastics Organization were negligent for not ensuring she was better ensured.
The Wall Street Journal reported that AOL Time Warner and the US Gymnastics Federation refused to comment on the lawsuit.
On July 22, 1998, then 17 years old, Sang arrived in New York as a member of the Chinese gymnastics team to the 4th Goodwill Games.
During warm-ups, she fell and landed on her neck while performing a timer. She could not raise herself from the mat and was taken to the hospital immediately.
A Sino-US joint press conference the following day announced that the incident was an accident, and denied that any Games employees had a role in the accident.
“It was not an accident at all. That is why Sang is filing a transnational lawsuit,” said Huang Jian, Sang’s agent.
“It was by no means a mistake or an unforeseen accident,” Sang wrote on her microblog. “In 1998, I was at the peak of my competitive ability. I was perfectly able to execute a cartwheel with a body twist, as well as harder movements.”
Sang’s layers said that during practice, an employee working for the organizers attempted to move away the mat as she was landing from a vault off the horse. The movement distracted her, causing her to fall and land headfirst on the floor.
“The disturbance caused me hesitate while doing a critical motion in the air. And that’s what led to this tragedy,” she wrote.
The Gymnastics Center, operated by the State General Administration of Sports, provides notoriously poor care to injured athletes and pitiful welfare payments.
Years of neglect and frustration with how the two countries handled her injury triggered her lawsuit.
For the last 13 years, Sang has required the use of a wheelchair. Neither the US organizers of the games nor China’s sports authorities have provided Sang with any compensation. She has been given no aid in paying the last 10 years of medical bills.
As a “retired” athlete, Sang’s monthly salary is 1,600 yuan, Hai said.
While some question the wisdom of launching legal proceedings 13 years after the accident, Hai said it is because TIG’s refusal to cover her medical expenses is an ongoing issue.
“[It is] merely because she does not live in the US, which is simply discriminating based on the nationality of the disabled person. Justice may be late for her after 13 years, but it’s better than never,” Hai said.
As for her transnational lawsuit, Sang said she does not care if she wins.
Her goal is to make Chinese sports authorities recognize her injuries and provide equal treatment to disabled athletes, she said.
On her microblog, she wrote that the Chinese gymnastics team and relevant authorities ignored her after her injury.
She said she believes that laws and compensation systems in the US are better established than those in China, and that judicial proceedings in the US are more likely to uncover evidence and find witnesses.
“And that would bring in witnesses from the Chinese authorities. They would finally be forced to tell the truth,” she wrote.
She said that her national team coaches and guardians were ordered to say nothing at all about her accident when she was hospitalized 13 years ago.
“Now my coach and most relevant personnel have retired from the gymnastics center, and they have nothing to do with those work units now. If I take legal action, the witnesses will have less to lose and may be willing to speak out,” she wrote.
“I have been living in Beijing for 12 years and the Chinese gymnastics team has never invited me to its Spring Festival party. They also refuse to recognize me as a retired athlete when I needed such a recommendation to participate in a charitable activity,” she said.
Officials with the team have appealed to CCTV and other national outlets for a media blackout of Sang’s story, fearful her accident may deter children from pursuing a career in gymnastics.
Sending a Message
“Getting back up when you fall is the first step for any gymnast, and that’s how I’ve lived my life. In the 13 years since my accident, I’ve been working hard to study and find another path for myself to succeed in life,” Sang said.
Her story has drawn wide attention for its $1.8 billion yuan claim, but she said she hopes the sky-high price of her claim will motivate the defendants she names to ensure that future competitors don’t suffer from a similar accident.
“Regardless of whether Sang’s lawsuit is a win or a loss, all the world’s athletes will benefit from her decision to file it,” said Zhang Luping, an editor at All Sports magazine.
He said the current system in China is too obsessed with chasing medals, and that retired athletes who gave their all to the sport deserve equal care when they are disabled or retired.
Whether or not the sports authorities are willing to respond to such an egalitarian calling remains to be seen.