Sang Lan has used a wheelchair since fracturing her spine during the 1998 Goodwill Games in New York. (Photo/Xinhua)
Sang Lan with her former lawyer Hai Ming, right, and boyfriend and manager Huang Jian. (Photo/Xinhua)
She was China's "Smiling Angel" — a symbol of courage, determination and optimism despite being paralyzed for life. Yet in less a year, former gymnast Sang Lan has gone from one of China's most inspirational figures to one of its most reviled. Her many lawsuits, once regarded as a pathway to justice, have dissolved into nothing more than a soap opera. How did things go so wrong for the girl who once captured the hearts of a nation?
Sang Lan was born in eastern China's Zhejiang province and began training as a gymnast from the age of five. By the time she attended the 1998 Goodwill Games in New York as a 17-year-old, she was already one of China's most talented vaulters, having placed first in the 1997 Chinese Nationals.
While performing a routine move in the warmups for the final, Sang inexplicable mistimed her jump and fell on her head. Replaying the event over in her mind, Sang said she although she was in a lot of pain she had wanted to get back up to continue competing. Only when she saw the people around her in tears did she realize how badly she was injured.
Tests indicated Sang fractured two vertebrae and damaged her spinal cord. She would be paralyzed from the chest down for the rest of her life. "It was like a black night," she said in a video interview last year. "All of a sudden, my dreams were over."
Sang remained in New York for treatment, during which she became a minor celebrity. She was invited to New Year's Eve celebrations in Times Square as a special guest of then mayor Rudy Giuliani, and her visitors in hospital included Leonardo DiCaprio, Celine Dion and Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor who himself suffered a similar accident and became an activist for people with spinal cord injuries.
As she was still a minor, the Chinese Gymnastics Association appointed Kao Sung Liu and his wife Gina Hiu-Hung Liu, both New York residents with ties to the association, as Sang's guardians during her stay in America. Sang grew very close to the Lius during this time, and news reports portrayed them as a happy family.
Sang was embraced by the public upon her return to China almost a year later. She put her newfound fame to use, making public appearances and giving talks at various charity events for the disabled. Despite struggling with even the simplest of tasks, Sang graduated in journalism from Peking University and entered television, at one point even hosting her own show. She served as a goodwill ambassador for the UN and carried the Olympic torch in both Athens and Beijing. Thin and photogenic, with a sunny disposition, articulate voice and natural charm, Sang was a perfect fit for the spotlight. Her nicknames included "Smiling Angel", "Wheelchair Angel" and "Sunshine Girl".
Sang's public image was still unblemished when she announced in April 2011 that she was bringing a lawsuit against those she deemed responsible for her accident and condition, almost 13 years after that fateful day in New York. Defendants included Ted Turner, the creator of the Goodwill Games, Time Warner Inc, which bought the companies that ran the games in 1998, USA Gymnastics, which sponsored the event, TIG Insurance, which provided her insurance coverage, and the Liu couple who looked after her in New York. The suit contained 18 claims seeking US$100 million each, a total of US$1.8 billion.
Having kept silent for more than a decade, Sang suddenly declared her injury was not just an unfortunate accident but was actually caused by a negligent staff member who removed a mattress from where she was supposed to land. "The disturbance made me hesitate in doing the action in the air, which led to the tragedy," Sang wrote on her blog.
Sang also claimed media tycoon Turner reneged on a personal promise that he and his companies would provide for her living and medical expenses for life, while TIG had failed to fulfill their insurance contract after she returned to China on the basis that she lived outside the United States.
When the news first broke, many supported Sang's decision. While some raised eyebrows over the timing of the lawsuit, most were sympathetic when Sang claimed she had been prevented from "seeking justice" until now. According to the suit, Sang mentioned the cause of the accident to Chinese officials at the hospital, who allegedly dismissed her claims, saying she had brain damage. She also said potential witnesses would have been gagged by their employers at the time but most have now retired or left their positions. "So if I take legal measures toward those who were responsible," she wrote, "the witnesses will not be ordered to say nothing about the accident."
More curious was Sang's decision to include the Lius in the suit. Although she outwardly expressed her gratitude to the couple for years, Sang now claimed they had actively prevented Sang and her parents from voicing complaints or lodging claims. She also claimed they embezzled money from a fund dedicated to her and used her name and image for profit without authorization.
Sang said she did not care if she wins the lawsuit; she only wants to be able to tell her side of the story.
The man behind the lawsuit is Sang's lawyer, Hai Ming, who runs a small boutique firm in the New York borough of Queens. Hai is a stocky, flamboyant Chinese man whose company website is entirely in Chinese and contains news clippings of his various high-profile pro bono cases. In 2008, Hai sued CNN for US$1.3 billion for remarks by commentator Jack Cafferty which were said to be defamatory towards Chinese people. He also sued actress Sharon Stone for her comments about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and led a suit against the film studio MGM over the film Red Dawn, based on a book about a fictional Chinese invasion of America. None of the suits were successful.
"I will not ask Sang Lan for money even if we win the suit," Hai said at the time. "If Sang wants to pay me, I would advise with her to use the money to build a fund to help people in need."
Sexual assault allegations
The Lius rebutted the former gymnast's claims. Liu said on his blog that they "never did a single thing against Sang" and everything they did "can be put to the test before the law and time."
Meanwhile, Sang began to experience a degree of backlash. Netizens questioned her motives, with some calling her greedy for the amount of money she sought and others saying she was ungrateful for turning on the family who had reportedly treated her like their own daughter and paid for a portion of her rehabilitation expenses following her return to China.
A month later, on the back of information leaked to media outlets by Hai, the claim was amended to include shocking allegations of sexual misconduct by Liu and his stepson Wilson Xue — such as giving Sang unnecessary baths in the nude and touching her inappropriately when inserting a tube to help her urinate. Sang personally visited a local police station to give a deposition for the purpose of initiating criminal proceedings. The session lasted four hours but produced only six pages of written testimony.
The amended pleadings also added Hugh Mo, the Lius' lawyer and family friend, as a defendant. Mo, who is a former New York deputy police commissioner and assistant district attorney, is alleged to have acted in concert with the Lius in giving Sang bad advice and preventing her from pursuing legal action.
Mo and the Lius were further accused of starting an online smear campaign against Sang, along with 15 "John Does" and "Jane Does" who were also added to the lawsuit. These unknown defendants were alleged to have made defamatory remarks about Sang on the internet, such as "Sang Lan is a poisonous snake", "Sang Lan is paralyzed from chest down because she has an evil heart", and "Sang Lan, who wants to sexually harass you? You are so dirty, even if you wanted to be raped by someone, nobody wants to!"
The amendments brought the number of defendants to 25 and the total compensation sought to US$2.1 billion.
Hai later filed a witness statement signed by Dr Lu Ping, who was Sang's physical therapist between July and October of 1998. According to the statement, during one visit Lu witnessed Xue molesting Sang underneath a blanket on the sofa. As Sang is paralyzed from the chest down, she may not have been aware that she was being raped, Lu stated. Sang was only 17 at the time and a virgin, the statement said.
By September 2011, however, Sang's image and her lawsuit had all but fallen apart. As more details of the claim were slowly revealed, sympathy turned into outage. The outlandish allegations of sexual harassment and assault in particular had tipped the tide of public opinion against her.
Things first began to sour in June, when Hai dropped the claim against Ted Turner, followed shortly by the claims against Xue and Time Warner. Without admitting the sexual assault allegations were false, Hai said their decision to drop the civil case against Xue was based on jurisdictional issues.
In July, Sang reached a confidential settlement with TIG and US Gymnastics, which Hai nevertheless revealed as being worth US$10 million. While TIG and US Gymnastics could have challenged the suit on the basis that the statute of limitations had both expired, they ultimately chose to settle to put the ordeal behind them. Sang spoke of the settlement as a "breakthrough victory," which did not go down well with those who remembered her earlier comments about only wanting to tell her side of the story.
Prosecutors then dismissed Sang's sexual assault claims in August, citing a lack of evidence and saying the case would not stand up in court.
With her public image in tatters, Sang and Hai's relationship quickly deteriorated. The pair, who had previously said they were as close as siblings, seemingly turned into enemies overnight. Notwithstanding having initially said that he would take on the case for free, Hai sued Sang for US$3,000 in rent and US$20,000 in lawyer fees.
In a bizarre series of allegations posted online, Hai also claimed that Sang and her boyfriend and manager Huang Jian had abused him on many occasions, threatened to sue him for US$4 million for malpractice and even hired a hitman to kill him. He also said the sexual assault claim was merely a ploy for Sang and Huang to migrate to America to become US residents, that Huang had an affair with his secretary, and that Sang had repeatedly pleaded to be his mistress.
Hai had resigned as Sang's legal counsel by the end of August. "This time, Sang Lan has fallen on the law," Hai told reporters.
The Sang Lan soap opera did not end there. On March 2 this year, Hai issued a public apology as part of a settlement deal with the Lius and Mo, who had applied for Hai and Sang to be sanctioned under rule 11 of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure.
The "R-11" provides that a court may sanction a party who submits pleadings for an "improper purpose or that contain frivolous arguments or arguments that have no evidentiary support." Punishment may include fines and disbarment. In exchange for dropping the R-11 against him, Hai agreed to make the apology and a cash payment.
In an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, Hai expressed regret for his "salacious complaints", "clearly frivolous claims" and "bizarre damage allegations" against the accused. He also admitted making "baseless accusations" on the internet and through the media, including the sexual abuse claims, which he now acknowledges were to coerce them to settle the lawsuit. The statement ends with "I beg them to forgive me."
Was the apology genuine contrition, a fear of court sanctions, or just merely another way for Hai to get back at Sang? A weary Hai later told media outlets that while he merely signed the apology and did not draft it, he does not regret the decision. "I regret taking this case," he said. "Not only did I not get any money, I wasted a lot of energy... I just want to rid myself of this case."
Hai was able to back out of the mess after achieving the notoriety he was seeking. As for Sang, the battle continues. The R-11 against her still stands, as do her claims against the Lius and Mo, the only remaining defendants in the lawsuit. The determination that once made her an inspiration is now working against her. Despite enduring a year in which she went from beloved Smiling Angel to being ranked in an online poll of China's Top 10 Most Disgusting Figures, Sang refuses to give up.
"The fact is, it's very simple," she said recently. "I have a clear conscience. I can only receive justice through the law. I won't back down. I will keep moving forward."
Sang Lan 桑蘭
Kao Sung Liu 劉國生
Gina Hiu-Hung Li 謝曉虹
Hai Ming 海明
Wilson Xue 薛偉森
Hugh Mo 莫虎
Huang Jian 黃健