Not masters yet

Golfer Guan impresses, while boxer Zou waits for his shot

Not masters yet

Big hit in Augusta: 14 year-old Guan grabbed headlines at golf’s Masters

Guan Tianlang’s debut at the Masters last week was calmness personified, behaviour that some sections of the international press might do well to learn from.

The youngest ever competitor at last week’s Masters tournament, as well as the youngest to make the cut, the 14-year old handled everything that was thrown at him with aplomb, even the storm surrounding his one-stroke penalty for slow play.

“I respect the decision they made,” Guan acknowledged, apparently unruffled. “They should do it because it’s fair to everybody.”

His father Guan Hanwen sounded equally calm. “A rule is a rule,” he said. “It’s OK.”

Despite the hullaballoo about Guan in the golfing media, were Chinese golf fans similarly stirred by his achievement? Mark Dreyer, a sports journalist based in Beijing, has a hunch that Guan’s success may have been greeted with more interest outside China than at home. The teenager’s weibo following swelled from about 20,000 in the week before the tournament to 28,000 by its conclusion. In percentage terms, that’s a decent increase. But stars like Li Na, the tennis player, have more than 21 million fans, giving the teenage golfer’s popularity a little more perspective.

Also getting mention was that the Chinese media didn’t travel in numbers to cover the Masters, often relying on reports from the international press. And although state-run newspapers like the China Daily did carry prominent stories in their English-language editions, most Chinese-language titles focused on domestic football or last Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix instead.

How about the other rising Chinese star of the moment, Zou Shiming, the light flyweight boxer? At least Zou is plying his trade in a sport that appeals to those lacking the financial means to aspire to Guan’s success on the greens.

After claiming China‘s first Olympic boxing medal, a bronze, in 2004, Zou went on to win its first gold in front of the home crowd in Beijing, before winning once more in London last year (see WiC22 for our first mention of Zou).

In contrast to the young age at which Guan is likely to turn pro, Zou has started his own professional career at almost 32, with a four-year contract with Bob Arum’s Top Rank. That means that he will need to be fast-tracked into a world title shot, following fights with underwhelming opponents like the 18 year-old Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela, who Zou defeated unspectacularly in Macau earlier this month.

Zou’s promoters are still hopeful that he will hit the big time, something reflected in the hype surrounding the fight, as well as his $300,000 purse, well above average for a first professional bout.

Media headlines also celebrated his debut as a smash with the television audience, with claims that 300 million Chinese tuned in. But that figure is unproven, apparently pulled from mischievous comments made by Michael Buffer, the pre-bout announcer. Again sports journalist Dreyer urges caution, saying that the buzz on weibo would have been much greater if the TV audience had reached such heights.

Still, Zou’s promoter Arum sounds pretty sure that his boxer will pull in massive audiences.

“Will he ever become a superstar in the United States? Of course not. Not a chance,” Arum told ESPN. “But in China? Yes. I signed [Zou] because I realised that he was so famous in China that I could not only promote him, but I could also introduce fighters from all over the world and get the Chinese caught up in the sport of boxing. That’s the plan. I know this is the start of that.”

Arum also seems to think that Zou’s rise will sell plenty of pay-per-view subscriptions in China too (perhaps, but paid content is not a concept that many Chinese sports fans are familiar with; see last week’s edition).

Arum is undeterred. “I guarantee you that before he retires, he will make more money in a fight than Pacquiao [the hugely popular Filipino boxer] has ever made in any single fight, more than $28 million, because I know what is happening in that market,” the promoter insisted.

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