Back in 2004, Tian Liang, an Olympic gold medallist, saw his career come to an abrupt end when he was kicked out of the national diving team. His fans were shocked. After all, it wasn’t long before that China’s diving prince – only 25 at the time – had returned triumphantly from the Athens Olympics, where he picked up gold and bronze medals.
The diver had offended China’s sports tsars for “taking part in too many commercial activities”. Local media reported that Tian wasn’t showing up to practice on time, after hiring an agent for his commercial endeavours (China’s sport bodies frown on these Jerry Macguire types). Top diving official Zhou Jihong said at the time: “China’s diving team would be destroyed if it included an undisciplined player like him.”
Tian tried but failed to win his place back on the national team (he was relegated to the Shaanxi provincial squad, instead). So in 2007, he bowed to the inevitable and announced his retirement from the sport. His experience was taken as a lesson by others to avoid confrontation with the sporting authorities.
Fast forward to now, and China’s sports world is wondering whether Sun Yang might become the next Tian Liang. That’s because the athlete – last year the first Chinese man to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming – has been rebuked for “breaking a series of team rules”. As a result, Sun won’t receive his training allowance for a month, and worse, will be “provisionally suspended” from all commercial activities, including personal endorsements.
“There are only excellent athletes in our college, no special ones,” warned Li Jianshe, president of the Zhejiang College of Sports, where Sun has been training.
So what happened? The swimmer is said to have skipped practice for over 40 days, says the Beijing Times. Sun has also acknowledged publicly that he has a girlfriend, which has led to grumblings that he must be neglecting the pool as a result. But his worst offence in the eyes of sports authorities was reportedly demanding the replacement of Zhu Zhigen, his coach of more than a decade. The two seem to have been estranged for some time with Sun accusing his coach of “outdated” methods. Zhu, 56, was so upset that he suffered a relapse of high blood pressure, Xinhua reported.
The Chongqing Economic Times quoted Zhang Yadong, a former chief coach of the national swimming team, as saying that it would be impossible to replace the coach, despite the tensions between the two men.
“Sun should be grateful,” says Zhang, adding that Olympic winners cannot behave as they like. “They have to bear in mind that it is the system that made them win and there are many people providing them with services.”
China’s netizens also appear to think that Sun needs to be disciplined. In a survey conducted by Sina, an internet portal, 68.6% of 17,000 respondents said they were supportive of the sports authority and only 16% thought the punishment too harsh (the remainder were undecided).
Last week authorities at the Zhejiang College of Sports said Sun has “conducted an in-depth self-examination,” and had vowed to behave better. As yet, he hasn’t appeared for any public activity. Tencent Sports says Sun’s recent troubles are emblematic of the problems with the government-funded sports system, which is still mired in old-style, socialist thinking – expensively training athletes from childhood but then treating them like state property.
“Other than athletes like Ding Junhui and Li Na [who both broke away from the state sports administration], China’s sportsmen all carry the burden of being a ‘civil servant’ because the athlete programme is state funded. So when tension between the officials and the athlete is high, the sports administrators can threaten to expel them from the team; the public, too, feels like they have a say in demanding that the athletes put in more effort for the country,” says the internet portal.
Sun will have to tread carefully if he wants to avoid the same fate as Tian. There are major financial implications too, as the swimmer is considered one of the most commercially successful athletes in China, having signed endorsement deals with brands like Yili Dairy and Coca-Cola. The China Daily forecasts that Sun’s endorsements could be worth as much as $20 million this year.
Perhaps Sun could take a cue from former diver Guo Jingjing, who was also barred from the national squad for becoming too commercial (see WiC93). To safeguard her own place on the team, Guo made a tearful plea to the public, saying that her former selfishness was unacceptable because “I belong to the nation”.
That kind of attitude, it appears, is what’s required to survive in China’s sports system.
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