China weightlifting champion in provincial tug-of-war

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BEIJING, Oct 26 (Reuters) Chinese weightlifting champion Zhang Guozheng is at the centre of a battle between two home provinces hoping to cash in on the Olympic gold medalist's potential success at next year's Beijing Games.

In China, where sporting achievements are linked to state grants and often the political prospects of government officials, provinces fight hard for champions' services.

Zhang, who took gold in Athens in 2004, had had his training regime disrupted by a bureaucratic dispute between Yunnan and Shanxi provinces, each claiming the athlete as their own, Friday's China Daily reported.

''I am almost devastated. I just want it to be sorted out as soon as possible,'' Zhang told the paper.

Earlier this year, Zhang, an athlete registered with China's southwestern Yunnan province since 1995, switched to northern Shanxi province, claiming the Yunnan administration had dumped him during a spell of poor form after his Athens Olympics triumph.

''Yunnan did not give me the basic salary in the last two years.

They just want their interests from my sporting career,'' said Zhang, who took the 69kg clean and jerk title at last month's world championships in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

''Even after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, officials from the province's sports bureau showed hatred towards me ... because I only finished fourth and they thought I had no value any more,'' Zhang said.

Yunnan officials insisted the weighlifter, who has re-emerged as having a genuine chance to win a medal in Beijing next year, remained their athlete and that he had refused a contract extension.

''I know (he) has switched to Shanxi, but it does not mean we have given up the preferential right,'' the paper quoted Yunnan athletics chief, He Guangyu, as saying.

The final decision rests with China's sports ministry, the General Administration of Sports, which allocates funding to each of China's provincial sports bureaus.

Provincial tugs-of-war for champion athletes are not uncommon in China.

China's top snooker player, Ding Junhui, was courted by Beijing, Shanghai and several provinces after he rose to the world's elite ranks.

Han Xiaopeng, the country's first Winter Olympics champion, was fought over by neighbouring Liaoning and Heilongjiang rovinces after taking gold in the men's freestyle skiing aerials at Turin in 2006, the paper said.

REUTERS TB RN1021

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