Olympic hopeful who lost his legs in Tiananmen Square

Fang Zheng was a promising discus thrower when he dared to join the demonstrations in Beijing in 1989 – and fell under a tank. His national pride will forever be tinged with anger. Clifford Coonan hears his story

Fang Zheng is one Chinese sporting hero whose story will not be heralded at the Beijing Olympics. When the action starts, he will be watching from a wheelchair at his home in Hefei in Anhui province, one of China's poorest.

Fang's hopes of taking the field as a discus thrower in the Games were crushed, along with his legs, under a tank in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989.

His Olympic story is about politics, not sport. It was not so much the loss of his legs which cost him his career as an international athlete, as he competed very successfully in competitions for disabled athletes in the years after his injury.

It was the manner in which he became disabled, losing his legs during modern China's most serious political crisis, which ruled Fang out of international competition.

"The Olympics have a great significance for China and to the Chinese people. The Games will make China more open," said Fang. His selfless, quietly expressed sentiments only partially mask a deeper anger.

He lost both legs in the massacre – his right leg was lost above the knee, his left leg amputated just below the knee. To protect himself and his family, he has to be careful what he says, especially during a week when thousands of athletes, officials and tourists descend on Beijing to celebrate the world's biggest sporting event.

His early life is the classic biography of an emerging Chinese sports star. He was fired up by China's return to the Olympic Games at Los Angeles in 1984 after a long hiatus. "I've been a sports enthusiast since my childhood, and we were all so excited back then that China was going to become part of the Olympic family again. It was one of the reasons I applied to go to the Beijing Academy of Physical Science," he said.

A patriot, he wanted to help his country win medals, and he started studying in 1985, training at night. He was inspired by the spirit of political change and idealism that swept through Beijing, coming to a head in the spring of 1989, which saw thousands of students occupy the city's central square to protest against corruption and call for democratic change.

A few months after the events in Beijing in June 1989, in cities such as Leipzig, Budapest and Prague, governments decided not to act against their people, and the chain of events which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of Eastern Europe began.

But in Beijing, the Supreme Leader, Deng Xiaoping, architect of the same reforms which saw China end its long period of isolation, Olympian and otherwise, took a different line. The Chinese government sent the tanks in to crush the fledgling democracy movement in Beijing and in other cities around the country.

The official line is that the Tiananmen Square crackdown was necessary to ensure stability, and since 1989, the government has begun to implement some of the freedoms the protesters on the square had sought, such as getting rid of rules dictating where Chinese could live or work, and even the person they could marry.

Years of strong economic growth have given millions of Chinese a say in their destinies. The government is engaged in a highly public campaign to crack down on the corruption which has blighted the country and which it once denied existed, though in the absence of a free media or speech, critics say the campaign is doomed to fail.

At the same time, power in China still belongs exclusively to the Communist Party and independent political activity is forbidden. Nearly all of China's active dissidents have been exiled or imprisoned.

The crackdown is no longer a topic of discussion these days and has become an increasingly historical problem. Students entering university this year were not born when the massacre happened, and even this year's graduating class were toddlers when it took place.

Fang tells a tale of a night of terror as the tanks rolled in early on the morning of 4 June and opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. Along with fellow students, he ran for his life to the west of the square.

As they reached the Liubukou crossroads, grenades were thrown into the crowd from behind, and Fang heard the tracks behind him. He saw the tank approach until he thought its barrel was right in his face. He was helping a female student into a side street when his legs went under the tracks and he was dragged along behind the vehicle before hauling himself clear.

He started to train again as part of the lengthy healing process following the double-amputation, focusing on discus and javelin. In March 1992, he represented Beijing in the third All-China Disabled Athletic Games in Guangzhou, winning two gold medals and breaking two records for the Far East and South Pacific region.

He qualified for an international event in 1994 but the Sports Ministry did not allow him to take part because of fears that he would talk to foreign reporters and cause embarrassment. Deng Pufang, Deng Xiaoping's son, who was paralysed after being thrown from a window during the Cultural Revolution, tried to intervene, to no avail.

Fang has been sidelined ever since. The official version is that he lost his legs in a "traffic accident". He still feels anger but is not bitter, although the entire sports apparatus is controlled by the government and his family is poor.

"I do not plan to come to Beijing for Olympics or Paralympics. As to what happened to me, it was many years ago. I am certainly very angry about it," he said. "These days I live a very ordinary life. I am just an ordinary civilian," he said.

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister
TVSPOILER ALERT: It's all coming together as series returns to form
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine