Sun may shine in Barcelona, but for how much longer?

Chinese swimmer Sun Yang has been a naughty boy: partying, missing training, and (gasp) even spending time with a girl. Sun wasn’t happy after being fined and went into a sulk, demanding a new coach. He need look no further than the world’s most famous swimmer, Michael Phelps, for a case study. Phelps, too, got tired of a life of training, let his hair down a little and then this happened:

ImageBut Phelps buckled down again and won four gold and two silver medals at the London Olympics last year. Sun needs to get over himself if he is to do the same in Rio in 2016. Here is this week’s Sports Talk column:

In just over a month from now, Chinese swimmer Sun Yang will line up at the FINA World Championships in Barcelona, favored to win medals in every event he enters, which could be as many as six. But all is not well in Sun’s world.

He first shot to fame in China when he won two gold medals at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, and then won worldwide acclaim with two more golds at the London Olympic Games the following year. But with fame came money – and complications.

ImageSun reportedly had to give up about two-thirds of his $18 million in endorsements to the China Swimming Association.

It’s not hard to see why he might be a little peeved, when tennis star Li Na, who famously “broke free” from the con?straints of the State system, now hands over less than 10% of her earnings to the govern-ment.

In addition, the 21-year-old fell out with his coach earlier this year over the intensity of his training program. He was then fined for skipping training sessions, concentrating too much on commercial activities and posting pictures of his girlfriend online.

Sun and his coach had a public reconciliation in March, but it was short-lived: Reports came out a month later that the police were called following another dispute between the pair. Last we heard, Sun is training on his own and is insisting that he is given a new coach.

ImageWhether or not Sun has a valid argument, this is not the path to future success. He may well do just fine in Barcelona – he’s a dominant swimmer, and you don’t lose that overnight – but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he won’t be biting medals of any color on the podium at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 unless he resolves his coaching situation.

As much as I sympathize with elements of his situation, I’ve heard stories from reputable sources of Sun refusing interviews purely because those around him thought it wouldn’t help to further his profile.

Hint at a commercial opportunity, though, and the door is wide open.

Sun Yang is the second most marketable athlete in China today after Li Na, but he needs to find a better balance between what he does in and out of the pool. Otherwise, his career will be cut short – and his value will plummet.

As a final note, compare Sun’s current situation with the other celebrated Chinese swimmer of the moment, 17-year-old Ye Shiwen. This piece in the Independent paints her as a model athlete, and it’s true that she has dealt gracefully with repeated doping insinuations, backed up with bogus stats.

She’s at the other end of the spectrum to Sun and could also stand to have more of a balance in her life: she can win all the gold medals she likes, but the sponsors are hardly banging down her door. Yes, swimming needs to be her priority, but China has a history of Olympic champions retiring with nothing to their names, and (in some cases) even ending up on the streets.

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