Red Star

Ning Zetao

A new athletics darling

Ning of China

Stuffed Bun salutes

China’s elite swimmers recall Alexander Popov mostly for his toughness: the Russian won the 100-metre freestyle race in the 1998 world swimming championship only a year after being stabbed in the stomach. Among the general public Popov is also remembered for his “face value”, or yanzhi, a popular term referring to the marketing value of a person’s appearance.

But could China have unearthed a star swimmer capable of matching Popov’s competitiveness both in and out of the pool?

Who is he?

Ning Zetao was born in 1993 in Henan province. Both his parents and grandparents served in the People’s Liberation Army, and so does Ning, who joined the navy’s swimming team at the age of 14.

Now Ning is emerging as the country’s leading freestyle sprinter. He was named by CCTV as the Chinese Sportsman of 2014 after winning four gold medals at the Asian Games held in Incheon, and has also set the Asian record in the 100m freestyle race.

Why is he in the news?

Earlier this month Ning won the 100m freestyle at the 2015 FINA Swimming World Championships in Kazan in Russia. Awarded the gold medal by Alexander Popov – Ning’s idol – he became the first Asian to win the blue ribbon event at the championships.

The state media has been quick to compare his achievements to Liu Xiang’s, the former athletics darling who became the first Chinese to win the 110m hurdles at an Olympics (in 2004). But calmer heads point out that Ning remains “an Olympic gold medal away” from matching the star power of Sun Yang, a Chinese Olympic and world-record-holding distance swimmer.

How about Ning’s ‘face value’?

His latest win propelled the number of his followers on Sina Weibo from 10,000 to over 1.1 million in 24 hours. His internet fan base then nearly tripled in a week. More than 100,000 female internet users, including a few celebrities, have been keeping themselves busy posting photoshopped selfies with him using the “Ning Zetao’s Girlfriend” hashtag.

The 22 year-old swimmer has also been dubbed “Little Fresh Meat” for his chubby cheeks and impressive abs, though he is supposed to prefer being called baozi, or “stuffed bun”.

“I like eating the buns and I look like one. The food contains rich and delicious fillings,” Ning has been quoted as saying, also suggesting that a bun’s filling bears comparison to a person’s character, which he considers his most important trait.

Expect a raft of endorsements to follow soon enough, as the country’s consumer brands seek to cash in on Ning’s new star power.

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