Sun Yang is undoubtedly one of China’s top sports stars, in a bracket with tennis pioneer Li Na and perhaps badminton king Lin Dan as well. His commercial potential is huge, but he is his own worst enemy right now. Whereas Li’s image as a rebel, breaking free from the shackles of the state system, is not quite as the western media would have you believe, her conflicts with authority have in many ways added to her popularity – at least with the Chinese public, if not the domestic media.
Sun Yang turned 22 on December 1 and has already reached the top of his sport (two Olympic and five World Championship gold medals), but his problems just this year have included:
- bust-up with coach over girlfriend, which led to training alone
- multiple clashes with officials over too many commercial activities
- driving without a license, and lying to police about it, landing him seven days in detention
- going AWOL from the team after returning from holiday
- badmouthing fellow national team swimmers, having no friends on the team
His talent is not in question, but his image is in tatters, and that could affect the commercial activities he appears to love so much. Swimming officials have said Sun’s “indefinite” ban following his latest traffic indiscretion could end “soon”, but that’s about the only good news. As I discuss in this week’s Sports Talk column, he has been left off the “shortlist” of 146 athletes in contention for this year’s CCTV Sports Awards, despite having arguably the best year of his career and having won Best Male Athlete in both 2011 and 2012. Here’s an extract:
Sun is treading a fine line. Li Na carved out a niche as a popular rebel after breaking free of the state-run sports system. Sun has had parallel clashes with authority, but his behavior looks more like that of a spoilt child. He is in danger of losing public support and if that happens, the road ahead may not be quite so enjoyable.