Sun not shining

Swimming ace in scandal that embroils Hyundai


Car trouble: Sun was caught driving without a licence

Talk about driving and Tiger Woods, and the first impression is a ball landing 300 yards down a fairway. But gossip column readers got a very different interpretation four years ago, after news that Tiger had crashed his car into a fire hydrant outside his house at two in the morning.

Woods was said to have been found dazed and bleeding in the street, while his wife lurked nearby brandishing a golf club.

The incident unleashed a soap opera of a scandal which culminated in Wood’s divorce from his Swedish wife on revelations of serial infidelity. For his sponsors this proved a problem – not least for Accenture. The consulant’s advertising tagline “Go on, be a Tiger” suddenly developed an added twist.

Earlier this month another car accident involving a sports star grabbed headlines, this time in China. And like Woods, it was embarrassing for all the parties involved.

Last Sunday in Hangzhou the Olympic swimming hero Sun Yang collided with a bus. Thankfully, no one was injured in the accident. But the crash was soon making headlines. For a start, Sun was driving a Porsche SUV, which may have surprised South Korean carmaker Hyundai, one of his sponsors. And worse, he was discovered to be driving without a licence. “Sun admitted he did not have one,” Hangzhou police told Xinhua.

Sun, the first Chinese man to win Olympic swimming gold with victories in the 1,500-metre and 400-metre freestyle events at the 2012 London Games, made a half-hearted attempt to explain himself, claiming that he was so busy with swimming that he was unfamiliar with driving laws. He also suggested that the Porsche wasn’t his but was borrowed from a relative.

But a quick sweep through the weibo world showed that netizens were unconvinced by his explanation: “Since when did driving with a licence become ‘knowledge of the law’ instead of simple common sense,” one netizen mocked. “Or did China’s driving test become so difficult that even someone as coordinated as Sun Yang couldn’t pass the test?”

Hyundai has also been dragged into the mess, following an investigation into what has been deemed as ‘false advertising’ by the carmaker. Speaking to news site, a lawyer from the China Consumer Association blasted the Korean firm for a recent commercial in which Sun motors around in an Hyundai SUV. Beijing Youth Daily, reporting that the ad has been shown frequently on TV, says that it shows Sun driving illegally. Ergo, Hyundai is seen as condoning unlawful behaviour.

In response Hyundai has said that Sun’s is an “image endorsement” and not a “driving endorsement”. It also insists that Sun never drove the SUV personally and was filmed pretending to do so while his car was being towed by a truck. The carmaker’s contract with the swimmer expired in October before the crash, a company spokesperson also told Tencent.

Hyundai could learn a thing or two from Nike when it comes to crisis management. When the superstar hurdler Liu Xiang withdrew from the 2008 Olympics with an Achilles injury, Nike handled the crushing sense of disappointment rather adeptly. A new campaign soon sought to cash in on the country’s collective angst, urging: “Love competition. Love risking your pride. Love winning it back. Love giving it everything you’ve got. Love the glory. Love the pain. Love sport even when it breaks your heart.”

Sun is also in trouble with the country’s sports authority. “Sun Yang ignored the laws of the country and recently seriously violated the rules of his team several times,” a statement from the Chinese Swimming Administrative Centre (CSAC) lamented. “He violated the basic principles of morality and went against the spirit of sport, seriously damaging the image of the national swimming team and Chinese athletes.”

The CSAC also announced that Sun was “suspended from all competitions at home and abroad; suspended from training with the national swimming team; and suspended from all social and commercial activities involving the team.”

Sun has issued a statement on his personal weibo expressing his remorse: “As an athlete and public figure I should be a positive role model, but I haven’t done a good job,” he wrote. “For this reason I deeply apologise and will reflect upon myself.”

The censorious tone of the swimming body may well have been prompted by its ongoing frustration with its champion athlete. WiC readers will recall that Sun was embroiled in a controversial dispute with his long-time coach Zhu Zhigen in February, when the latter told him to end his relationship with a flight attendant (she was being blamed for Sun missing training for weeks, see issue 182). The two men fell out and Sun was accused of lacking respect for his mentor. He was deducted a month’s allowance and briefly suspended from commercial activities.

Sun must now sit out from the pool as he serves his swimming ban. But at least he’ll have time to take that driving test.

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