New generation of stars emerging
Boasting elite performances and strong personalities, China’s new breed of Olympians has emerged from the shadow of the nation’s senior sports celebrities to impress the world at the Olympics.
As the competition in Rio de Janeiro heats up, a group of Chinese athletes, including swimmers Sun Yang and Fu Yuanhui, are gaining global attention — and not only for their athletic prowess. Their colorful individuality, breaking the stereotype of China’s impassively silent sports heroes of the past, also is in the spotlight.
After the men’s 400m freestyle final on Saturday, an earlier feud between winner Mack Horton of Australia and Sun escalated, with Horton using the term “drug cheat” while mentioning Sun at the post-final news conference. The remark prompted outrage among Chinese fans.
In March 2014, Sun tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine, which was in medication he had taken for a heart condition. He was suspended for three months after proving to the China Anti-Doping Agency at a hearing that the substance was used only for medical purposes.
Sun did not fire back with words, but delivered a riposte on Monday by winning the men’s 200m freestyle to claim the first gold medal for Chinese swimming at the Rio Olympics.
“I just want to prove that the Asians can also challenge and upset the Westerners in their strong events. I just want to stand up high for Asian swimming,” he said.
Following his remarks, swimmer Fu’s comical comments and exaggerated facial expressions during a poolside interview before the 100m backstroke final vaulted her into the limelight as well.
Her remarks, such as using “prehistoric powers”, coupled with hilarious facial expressions, went viral online. The number of followers on her micro blog increased from fewer than 50,000 to 4.5 million.
“It’s too terrible to watch (the interview). I didn’t expect so many would like me. Their taste must be hardcore,” Fu, who eventually won a bronze medal in the 100m backstroke, said later.
Such impressive performances in and out of the pool are filling the void of international exposure left by such senior Chinese sports stars as former NBA All-Star Yao Ming, champion hurdler Liu Xiang and tennis Grand Slam winner Li Na. However, the younger generation still needs more experience beyond the athletic arena before joining the elite group, said observers.
“Since the retirement of Yao, Liu and Li, China covets new sports heroes with international influence,” said Li Shengxin, a sports management expert at Beijing Sport University.
“The Olympics has offered a marquee stage, but it seems the young stars haven’t been fully prepared to take the baton. The lack of competence in fame management and PR skills, as well as inconsistent athletic performances, is taking its toll on their stardom,” Li said.
Li’s sentiment was illustrated by the disappointing Rio campaign of Chinese swimming sensation Ning Zetao, who failed to qualify for the final in his strong event, the men’s 100m freestyle, on Tuesday.
Since winning the 100m freestyle gold medal at the World Swimming Championships in Russia last year, Ning has become a household name for his athletic achievement, handsome looks and six-pack physique.
However, his newfound fame brought trouble after he signed with a sponsor that is a rival of the national team’s dairy provider, according to reports in Chinese media.
4.5 million followers of Fu Yuanhui’s blog
200 meters Sun Yang’s gold-winning event
China’s Sun Yang (above, right) captured a gold medal in the men’s 200m freestyle swimming competition on Monday. Fu Yuanhui won a bronze medal in the women’s 100m backstroke (center) at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on Monday. Ning Zetao (top) wasn’t as lucky and failed to qualify for the finals in the men’s 100m freestyle on Tuesday. All three athletes have become known in China for their personalities as much as their accomplishments.