The 2001 Tertiary Admissions Policy for Outstanding Athletes provided the first path to college-level schools for students with non-academic talents. It allows 235 of China's 844 universities to accept students on the basis of talents in sports such as table tennis, basketball and running.
Debate about the policy erupted in January, however, when the People's Daily, the official Chinese government newspaper, announced it would be reformed.
Opponents say the program is unfair to regular students competing for school slots.
Xianglong Guo, who earned a prestigious Peking University spot through prowess on the track, benefitted from the policy.
"This is my college life: it's all about running practice," he told UPI NEXT as he rose at 6 a.m. recently for his regular sunrise training run.
"Still," Xianglong said, "it's better than the pain of studying."
Supporters see the policy as a solution to education and employment problems Chinese athletes face after retiring from competition.
Promising child athletes are often sent to junior training centers that provide limited basic education. Consequently, many Chinese athletes lack basic communication and critical thinking skills, as retired professional basketball player Yao Ming noted.
"In China, very few athletes can actually reach the top of the pyramid in their career," Ming, the 7-foot-6-inch veteran of the Houston Rockets in the United States said recently.
"The rest," he told the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference this month, "face real life problems after retirement because they lack proper education and aren't capable of making a living."
China Daily reported this month that former world champion gymnast Zhang Shangwu had been found begging and performing for tips in subways, while former weightlifting champion Zou Chunlan had been found working in a public bathhouse.
Senior Education Ministry official Bingqi Xiong is an enthusiastic supporter of the special admissions policy for talented athletes. He says that granting university spots based on academic skills alone is too narrow.
Taking an entrance examination that only tested academic ability was once the only route into a university.
"The old university entrance system evaluated students under simple criterion. As a result, students' interest and personality were killed and they resembled products from a factory assembly line," Bingqi told the first China Education Revolution Forum in January.
"Broader criteria are needed," he added.
The January announcement that the policy would be reformed attracted considerable online discussion. China's biggest micro-blog provider, www.sina.com, recorded 190,723 micro-blogs on Jan. 16 alone mentioning "education reform" and "student-athletes."
Among the critics is Bojia Zhang, who took the entrance exam in 2010 but failed to qualify for the university he wants to attend.
"We have to study very hard for the offer, while they can get it easily because of their special talents," he told UPI Next.
Doubts surround the student-athletes' academic performance on campus.
Having spent most of his time training on the track, Xianglong, the Peking University student, has a poor academic record.
"Some work is too hard for him to finish," Kai Ren, one of Xianglong's roommates, told UPI NEXT.
"I often lend him my homework. Sometimes he asks me to do research or presentations for him."
Last semester, Xianglong's grade point average was 2.74, giving him a ranking of 26th of 28 students.
Yang, one of Xianglong's running teammates, failed three exams last semester.
Bingqi laments the absence of efforts to help athletes' performance off the field.
"We only focus on selecting student athletes. Any method to help them improve either their academic or professional skills is missing," he wrote on his blog.
Sheng Qin, an education consultant who is a member of Beijing's university entrance examination committee, criticized the policy for neglecting student athletes once they have entered universities.
"The only thing high schools and universities are concerned about is whether student athletes can get offers based on their athletic performance," he told UPI Next.
"Any supporting policies which look after their academic performance and their further career are missing," he said.