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[Opinion] The Lesson of Liu Xiang

Posted August. 26, 2008 08:13,   


No one can argue that one of the most unlucky stars of the Beijing Olympics was the “Yellow Bullet” Liu Xiang. He was literally born to be a sprinter as his given name Xiang, meaning "fly or jump high,” indicates. When Liu broke the belief that Asians cannot be good sprinters by winning the gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the men’s 110-meter hurdle, the Chinese people couldn’t love him more. His win led to many endorsement deals and Xiang`s commercial value went through the roof. He purchased a luxurious house and began to drive an expensive foreign car.

This all changed last week as Liu dropped out of the race due to a leg injury, shocking and disappointing the 1.3 billion Chinese. How would Koreans feel if their star swimmer Park Tae-hwan was unable to compete for a similar reason? With Liu`s shocking exit, the companies that endorsed him suffered negative consequences. Nike, Visa, Coca Cola and Cadillac were among the 20 or so sponsors who collectively lost an estimated one billion yuan (150 million U.S. dollars) banking on him. They eventually blamed Liu, saying he was too busy filming commercials instead of giving himself sufficient time to train.

Others say, however, that Chinese society is also responsible for Liu’s disappointing performance in that it tried to take advantage of him purely for commercial gain. Liu appeared only in a couple of commercials before the Athens Olympics but was cast in countless commercials ahead of the Beijing Olympics. He also ran for a spot on the International Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission along with newly elected Korean member Moon Dae-sung. Liu was so busy that he probably could not concentrate on training. Critics say he probably did not dare reveal his injury because he was afraid of falling short of the Chinese people’s high expectations.

A Korean sports star also seemed to have a similar problem. Rumors say one of Park Tae-hwan’s corporate sponsors tried to shoot a commercial featuring the swimmer during the Olympics. That could explain why Park tried to return to Korea in a hurry after the swimming competition. Come to think of it, it could`ve been really devastating. The International Olympic Committee bans Olympic athletes from commercial activities. If they violate this rule, their medals can be taken away. It is natural for corporations to feel the urge to use sport stars in commercials and for stars to feel they deserve reward for the sweat and effort made over the years. Both sides, however, must exercise restraint as hasty judgment can ruin not only an athlete`s career but also a company’s image.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)