The Next Li Na?

In the beginning there was Yao Ming. Then came Li Na. Could swimmer Sun Yang be the next Big Chinese Sports Star?

sun-yang-3That seems to be the prevailing opinion in China with badminton star Lin Dan (30) nearing the end of his glittering career and snooker player Ding Junhui too reserved to take on the role despite his undoubted talent. Sun, too, has talent – two Olympic and five World titles – but he also has baggage:

  • Endless feuding with his coaches over everything from girlfriends to training schedules
  • Spent time in detention for driving without a license (and forced the other inmates to go vegetarian so he wouldn’t have to eat contaminated meat and risk failing a drugs test)
  • Taunted Korean rival Park Tae-hwan in a TV commercial prior to the 2014 Asian Games (later passed off as friendly ribbing)
  • Called the Japanese anthem “ugly” after losing to a Japanese swimmer at the Asian Games

But baggage, if dealt with in the right way (i.e. redefined as “character”), is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a Chinese athlete trying to create a global brand. From last week’s Sports Talk column:

“With so many Chinese athletes viewed – internationally at least – as faceless robots manufactured on the State-run production line, Sun, like Li, stands out for having a distinctive personality. If he can stay out of trouble without losing his edge, the world could be seeing plenty more of him in years to come.”

That column, published in the Global Times, apparently prompted HSBC’s Week in China to comment that “Li’s reputation for individualism may also explain why state-run newspapers..didn’t dwell much on her contribution to the tennis world”. So here’s another column I wrote for, yes, another state-run publication, which dwelt almost entirely on her contribution to the tennis world:

A tearful Li Na signs off to fans at the China Open in Beijing
A tearful Li Na signs off to fans at the China Open in Beijing

“While Li Na made history on the court, her contributions off the court were arguably just as large. When she, and others, broke free from the shackles of the state-run system, it had an enormous impact on all sports in China, not just the tennis community… the flexibility now allowed means that decisions can be made for the benefit of the individual, rather than for the benefit of the country. In the past, that would have been unthinkable in China, but as Li Na has shown, more autonomy can translate into more success – and all of China has basked in her reflected glory.”

Chinese stars can stay relevant long after they retire, so don’t expect Li Na to vanish any time soon – or, for that matter, for her successor to be officially anointed tomorrow. But with Sun set to shine in Rio in 2016, the crown will likely have been passed by then, if not before.

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