Strange to say, but three of China’s biggest sports stars—both in the public imagination and in brands’ expense budgets—have given up competition. NBA basketballer Yao Ming retired in 2011 after longstanding foot and ankle problems; tennis player Li Na bowed out last year due to a chronic knee injury (and has just become a mum); and hurdler Liu Xiang finally announced his exit earlier this year, a decade after becoming the first Chinese man to win a track and field Olympic gold medal. The New York Times was quick to post the news of Liu’s retirement along with a summary of his sporting career, the athletic equivalent of an obituary.
Yet all three continue to appear in brand communications.
Though sponsored by Nike, the sports giant named after the god of victory, Liu has become more associated with a different Greek god; an inflamed Achilles’ tendon plagued him for the latter part of his career. Fifty-one athletes won gold medals for China at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but Liu’s failure to compete came as a special blow to the national esteem. Advertising campaigns and newspaper headlines had established him, along with flag-bearer Yao Ming, as the face of the Chinese Olympic team. His withdrawal brought tears to the eyes of many fans.
At the London Olympics four years later, Liu bravely limped the length of the 110m hurdles track after tearing his Achilles on the first hurdle in a preliminary heat. He kissed the final obstacle before being taken away in a wheelchair. There were 38 Chinese gold medal winners that year, but their successes were tinged with Liu’s failure, and carried with them an air of disappointment.
That disappointment only grew when Nanjing newspaper The Oriental Guardian ran a headline that read, “Liu Xiang knew, CCTV knew, leaders knew: only spectators foolishly waited to witness a miracle.” State broadcaster CCTV had evidently prepared four scripts for spinning Liu’s failure to perform before the race had even been run. Both the advertisers who had invested so much in Liu and the Chinese sports system, which takes as much as 65 per cent of players’ earnings, were unwilling to let Liu’s lucrative career end when he was no longer able to compete. Ads starring Liu continued to run even when he did not, growing in complexity and creativity as he transitioned from hero—the best, a champion—to a courageous but tragic antihero.
Over the past decade, both China’s sports administration and brands took huge risks on the eminently fallible joints of a few high-performance athletes. Instead of encouraging a broad sporting culture, and celebrating and championing different kinds of achievement, they stuck with three individuals who personified a peculiarly narrow narrative: historic successes in sports previously dominated by the West.
China topped the medal count at this year's Asian Athletics Championships, held in the first week of June in Wuhan, with 15 golds, 13 silvers and 13 bronzes. That means it will be well represented in Beijing at the IAAF World Championships taking place at the end of August, this time without Liu Xiang. If brands are looking for new heroes to help elevate their offerings, they’d do well to think more creatively about all of the Chinese nationals taking part, all of whom have stories, sacrifices, accomplishments and hopes for the future, instead of attempting to deify one or two people with all too mortal tendons, ligaments, muscles and bones.
Sam Gaskin is cultural content editor at Flamingo Shanghai