BEIJING – Thirteen years after a training accident left her paralyzed and ended her career as a world-class gymnast, China's Sang Lan has filed a lawsuit in the United States, one that threatens to tarnish her carefully maintained reputation for resilience at home.
The $1.8-billion suit targets everyone — from Ted Turner, who founded the Goodwill Games where the accident happened in 1998 in New York, to the former AOL Time Warner Inc. media company, which owned the games, to USA Gymnastics, which supported the event, to the couple who were her guardians in New York. It says they broke promises to care for Sang, then 17 and paralyzed from the chest down ever since.
The suit is an unexpected turn for Sang, whose sweet smile and upbeat nature earned her many supporters in China and who became a symbol of determination and courage in the face of a devastating injury. Returning home in 1999, she received a hero's welcome, with officials calling her "the pride of all Chinese." Since then, she has used her fame to advocate for the disabled.
Sang says her public image and the lawsuit are separate affairs, and she thinks it's more important to set the record straight about the circumstances surrounding her fall.
"At that time, people said that Sang Lan herself lost control and made the mistake that caused her to fall," Sang, now 29, said during an interview Wednesday in her two-bedroom apartment in northeast Beijing, where Beijing Olympics memorabilia decorate the shelves.
She says she fell because she was distracted by someone who moved a mat while she was in mid-air.
"I've already suffered such a great loss," she said, gesturing with her hands at her thin body. "I just want an explanation and to understand the truth about what happened that year. There is nothing wrong with that."
Turner, Time Warner and USA Gymnastics all declined comment. The New York couple's lawyer said the complaint had no merit and deplored the airing of the case in the Chinese media.
Reactions among Chinese media and fans have been sharply divided, an unusual situation for Sang, who in the past has been called a "smiling angel," ''wheelchair angel" or "sunshine girl." While some praise her for defending her rights, others have accused her of being overcome by greed or allowing herself to be used by others.
"Sang Lan turns from angel to devil overnight: Is she really greedy and ungrateful?" ran the headline in a commentary on Sportscn.com, a sports news website. It wondered if Sang should instead be taking action against the Chinese Gymnastics Association, which like most of the state-run sports machinery has a spotty record taking care of athletes past their prime.
As is the case with many Chinese athletes, Sang started training early, at age 5, getting picked because she had long legs and a petite frame. She was sent to a sports school in her hometown in the eastern city of Ningbo and before long she was chosen for national team training in Beijing. In 1997, she won the national vault championship and her future could not have been brighter.
A year later came the fall at the Goodwill Games. She crashed headfirst onto a mat while doing a routine vault during warm-ups. The fall fractured Sang's lower neck.
She underwent surgery and rehabilitation in New York for 10 months, during which she regained some strength in her shoulder and arms and was visited by singer Celine Dion, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and then Vice President Al Gore's wife, Tipper Gore. While in New York, the Chinese Gymnastics Association placed her in the care of Liu Guosheng and Xie Xiaohong, a Chinese-American couple with ties to the organization, Sang said.
Back in China, Sang carved out a new life, juggling physical therapy with studying broadcasting at Peking University, jobs in video journalism and lobbying for the rights of the disabled. She carried the Olympic torch in the 2004 Athens Games and then again for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Her physical condition, she said, has not improved much, especially after she moved farther away from the hospital where she used to get regular physical therapy in Beijing. She still has no feeling in her fingers and now her calves have shrunk with the lack of movement.
"I've been doing my own physical therapy. But my paralysis is from the chest down," Sang said, drawing a line across her chest with her hand, "so I have no way of exercising my lower limbs and that's caused my calves to atrophy."
Though she is able to feed and clean herself and use a computer, Sang continues to need help showering and going to the bathroom. She said that with age, she is also becoming more vulnerable to complications such as urinary tract infections and potentially life-threatening kidney problems.
Sang has health insurance with the American company TIG Insurance but is unable to use it for treatment outside the U.S., the lawsuit says. The company is also among the parties named in the lawsuit; it did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, says Time Warner and the gymnastics organization failed to follow through on promises to make sure her medical bills and other needs were covered, and that she's been unable to obtain necessary treatments.
Also targeted in the complaint were her guardians in New York, who go by K.S. Liu and Gina Liu in the United States. It says they controlled her every move, silenced her from speaking out about the fall and later waged a smear campaign against her by attacking her in postings on their blogs.
In an another development, Sang, her manager and her lawyer have alleged in recent days that she was the victim of improper sexual behavior while living with the Liu family. Sang's lawyer in New York, Hai Ming, said K.S. Liu and another male family member bathed Sang or otherwise touched her inappropriately. A police report has been filed in New York's Westchester county where they used to live, Hai said.
The Lius refused to comment. Their attorney, Hugh H. Mo, said he was puzzled that Sang was taking legal action so many years after the accident and wondered if she was receiving proper legal advice. He said the Lius were a "very generous and charitable" couple who had taken Sang and her mother into their home after the fall to help her convalesce.
"At the end of the day, the biggest loser is Sang Lan. Her image is worth more than $1.8 billion," Mo said. "The way the lawsuit has been disclosed to the media is unseemly."
Sang's lawyer, Hai, has been accused by some bloggers of manipulating Sang into filing the lawsuit for publicity or financial gain. Hai said Sang's manager had approached him in March and that he was taking on the case pro bono and would not accept a penny of any potential damages awarded by the court if the case proceeds.
Hai acknowledged, however, that parts of the lawsuit could be dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired for some of the counts in the complaint. But Sang said she was prepared for any outcome.
"Losing or winning (the lawsuit), is not important to me," she said. "I believe the law will be fair and just."