In the beginning there was Yao Ming. Then came Li Na. Could swimmer Sun Yang be the next Big Chinese Sports Star?
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.
Lists like SportsPro magazine’s Most Marketable Athletes [full list below] are equal parts inspired and enraging. I love the fact that Brazilian Paralympian Alan Oliveira (no. 17) is included, combining his age, talent and good looks with the undoubted boost to Brazilian sport that the next World Cup and Olympics will bring, almost as much as I hate the selection of Seth Jones (39), who is largely unknown even within his own sport, and, at 18, may not even play a single NHL game in the next three years even if he later develops into an All-Star.
All sports stars feel pressure to a certain extent, but when you’ve got the hopes of 1.3 billion people weighing on you, that pressure can become suffocating. China’s greatest sportsmen and women all either compete in individual events (Liu Xiang, Li Na, Lin Dan etc) or are head and shoulders above anyone else on their team (literally, in Yao Ming’s case), and so they rarely, if ever, have the chance to share that burden.
Zou Shiming is a man with a thousand names this week. Known variously by his growing international entourage as Zoo, Zow, Zoe, Joe, Joo and Jow (and that’s before we even get to his given name), the boxer courteously responds to all and sundry with an infectious smile, and willingly answers the same questions over and over again, always giving full and thoughtful soundbites.
It’s this understated charm that may actually turn out to be more useful to Zou and his team than his boxing talents, which, after winning three Olympic medals (2 gold, 1 bronze), are already legendary.