The love story between badminton champions Lin Dan and Xie Xingfang is well known in China. When he was only 14, Lin noticed a tall and slender girl at badminton training camp. Although he quickly developed feelings for Xie, he didn’t pursue her until they were both selected for the senior badminton team. In 2004, Lin announced that they were a couple.
At the time, their relationship was frowned upon by the authorities, according to Xie, who was a two-time world champion. “The rules of our team dictate that one cannot be in a relationship with a member who has not gained good accomplishment. So when Lin promised he would achieve success for the sake of our love, I was really moved,” she revealed in an interview.
That success soon followed. Lin, now 33, went on to become a two-time Olympics gold medallist (in 2008 and 2012) and he was given the nickname ‘Super Dan’ after winning all nine major titles in the badminton world: Olympic gold, the World Championships, World Cup, Thomas Cup, Sudirman Cup, Super Series Masters Finals, All England Open, Asian Games and Asian Championships.
As the first and only player to achieve this feat, his stardom was assured. His movie-star looks and feisty on-court personality was the icing on the cake (see our profile of Lin in WiC41).
To support her boyfriend’s career, Xie decided to take a step back from the limelight and in 2009 she announced that she would retire from the national team. “I’m willing to be the woman that makes soup for Lin Dan,” she declared.
The two tied the knot in 2012 in a wedding that was widely covered in the domestic media and the press nicknamed them the Condor Couple, after the characters of a Jin Yong novel about an impulsive young warrior and his calming and older lover (Xie is two years Lin’s senior).
Early this month, Lin announced on his personal weibo that the two have welcomed their first child. But the golden couple lost some of their shine last week when a series of paparazzi photos were leaked showing Lin holding hands with model-actress Zhao Yaqi back in October, when Xie was heavily pregnant.
Another set of photos doing the rounds shows the two in a hotel room engaging in more intimate activity and news about Lin’s infidelity has captivated China’s internet. Within 24 hours of the photos going online, they attracted over 500 million comments on weibo – most of which were overwhelmingly negative. “No matter how outstanding your achievements are, you will now only be remembered as a cheater, a man that disregards his responsibility as a father and a husband,” one thundered.
“Cheating on your wife is messed up. But cheating on her when she was pregnant with your child? That deserves a special place in hell,” another wrote.
Many of his fans are deeply disillusioned: “I used to think Lin Dan was a good man. I also believed that the love between the athletes was stronger than most people, because they have been through so much together. But now I don’t believe in anything. I’m so disappointed,” one female netizen lamented.
Hours after the photos circulated, Lin issued a statement apologising to his family, without directly acknowledging the affair.
The next day Xie posted a picture on her personal weibo showing the couple holding their newborn son’s hand, which seemed to suggest that they are going to work through the crisis. “Our family will support this responsible man and a man who always corrects his mistakes. Thank you for the concern from friends and fans. Our family will be together in the same boat under this adverse weather,” she wrote.
Although his wife appears to be sticking with him, Super Dan’s sponsors may not be so sure. Lin ranks alongside Li Na and Yao Ming as one of biggest sporting stars in China, where badminton trails only basketball, soccer and table tennis in popularity. His income from endorsement deals has boomed over the years, rising to Rmb27.5 million ($3.97 million) last year.
The superstar athlete now endorses brands like Oakley, Dolce & Gabbana and Montblanc. He has launched his own underwear label for men – called Intimate By Lin Dan – and earlier this year he told media he was mulling his own cologne brand too.
But the scandal could stymie many of his plans and Lady Max, a fashion industry website, has reported that two companies about to sign with Lin have already terminated discussions since it erupted.
“The online sentiment [towards Lin’s scandal] is very negative. The brands who endorse him – Dolce & Gabbana, Montblanc, Yonex, etc – are unlikely to respond positively to this news and we expect that there will be serious financial consequences,” Tom Elsden of Mailman Group, told the South China Morning Post. “Lin has over Rmb150 million in contracts with his sponsors, and we don’t expect them to stand by him. So the financial loss will be considerable.”
Chief Entertainment Officer, a blog, compares Lin’s fall from grace with that of the hurdler Liu Xiang, another sports icon. At one point, Liu, an Olympic medallist, endorsed as many as 17 brands. But after news about his messy divorce made headlines (see WiC288), the number of sponsors dropped to a handful.
“Compared with Liu Xiang, Lin Dan can probably find other opportunities that are not so closely tied with his public persona. But when it comes to endorsements deals and his eponymous brands, taking a big hit is inevitable. In fact, a lot of fans are already clamouring on weibo for the brands to replace their spokesperson,” the entertainment blog reports.
What amplifies the public reaction is that Chinese sports stars – especially Olympians – have been expected to live by an honour code and project a positive public image. “Chinese athletes are [usually] ‘employed’ by the government and are used to promote the success of the nation and themselves as role models. It is in the interest of the Chinese government for these types of scandals not to be uncovered, so it is a rare case,” Elsden told the SCMP.
Tiger Woods. offers another cautionary tale for the badminton player. The golfer’s image has never recovered from the exposure of his serial infidelities which subsequently led to his break-up with wife Elin Nordegren.
The revelations seem to have played a major part too in destroying the golfer’s previous steely confidence. The result: the formerly untouchable Woods has fallen to a current ranking of 861 in the world (after being number one in his heyday for 683 weeks).
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