The handshake between Deng Xiaoping and Muhammad Ali in December 1979 was a ground-shaking moment in both sport and geopolitics.
China had just reestablished diplomatic ties with the United States and the boxing superstar was visiting Beijing as a special envoy for then American leader Jimmy Carter. His job was to persuade the Chinese to skip the Moscow Olympics, which was scheduled for the following year.
They did just that but sent a large delegation to the Los Angeles Games four years later – the first time for decades they had participated at the Olympics in a competitive and practical sense (a small squad of athletes made a symbolic appearance in Helsinki 1952).
The message from Beijing seemed clear. China was turning away from the Soviet Union and more towards the US as it started to usher in a period of economic reforms and more openness to the outside world. Beijing even lifted a domestic ban on boxing as well.
In an interview with the Chinese magazine New Sport many years later, Mark McCormack, founder of International Management Group (IMG), the hugely influential talent agency, said that Ali’s Beijing tour in 1979 was his own firm’s first ever engagement in China. IMG has pulled the strings on many more deals since then, such as promoting China’s football and basketball leagues when they were starting to turn commercial in the 1990s.
McCormack’s firm was later merged into Endeavor Group, a talent and media agency which went public in New York last year. The American firm has just emerged as one of the biggest winners from the Beijing Winter Olympics this month, as the representative of a number of gold medal-winning Chinese athletes. Who then were China’s breakout sports stars from this Winter Olympics?
Eileen Gu: getting the best of China and the US
When Eileen Gu, or Gu Ailing as she is known in China, landed smoothly after one of the most difficult jumps ever seen in the women’s freestyle skiing big air event, a raft of consumer brands that she endorses knew they had struck gold too.
Gu would go on to win gold at the halfpipe and silver in slopestyle, becoming China’s most successful competitor at the Winter Games.
Although Gu was born in San Francisco in 2003, her mother is a Beijing native who married an American citizen. Most of Gu’s training was in the US but she is said to have given up her US citizenship in order to be eligible to represent China. (Athletes at the Olympics have to specify a passport from the country they’re competing for and China does not typically allow dual citizenship).
After winning a number of international tournaments, the teenager’s talent has been obvious for all to see. Her popularity has been building up in China for some time (see WiC485) but it reached a new peak after she won her medals this month in Beijing. One of the popular discussions in local social media about Gu has been how the skier’s mother has been preparing her for glory for 18 years. Apart from her freestyle skiing skills and immense marketing potential, Gu is also said to be a top student who has received an offer to study at Stanford University (so brains too, making her the whole package from a Chinese advertiser’s perspective).
For the international media, much of attention has centred on her decision to represent China instead of the United States. The choice didn’t go down well with some of her American peers. “It is not my place to judge, but Eileen is from California, not from China, and her decision seems opportunistic,” Jen Hudak, a former gold medallist at the Winter X Games, told the New York Post earlier this year. “She became the athlete she is because she grew up in the United States, where she had access to premier training grounds and coaching that, as a female, she might not have had in China. I think she would be a different skier if she grew up in China.”
On Twitter there have been mocking images of Gu from some American users in which she is pictured in photoshopped images next to Chinese President Xi Jinping or simply skiing over large piles of dollars, with captions like “love China for money”.
Gu has tried to steer clear of debate around her nationality and avoid other controversial topics, focusing instead on her mission of promoting winter sports to new audiences and (especially) inspiring girls to take them up (almost 600 million viewers in China watched the Winter Games on TV).
But Gu’s stellar success hasn’t been greeted with universal acclaim in China either, Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper has reported, with a number of social media posts querying whether her upbringing gives her any real connection to the Chinese public. “What does Eileen Gu’s success have to do with ordinary people?” one contributor asked, in comments that soon disappeared from public view.
“Do you have the money to send your daughter to private school? Do you have the time to drive eight hours on weekends to take her skiing? If she falls, do you have the money to pay for such expensive physiotherapy?” Zhang Cailing, a blogger with more than 140,000 followers on Xiaohongshu, a platform with similarities to Instagram, scoffed in another video.
“Her success story is more like that of a US middle-class, second-generation immigrant, not a homegrown China feminist story,” agreed Chen Xiaoyu, a cultural commentator on Xiaohongshu, who argued that the same opportunities and resources were rarely available to others.
Hu Xijin, formerly the editor in chief of the fervently patriotic Global Times, also warned the local media to temper their praise for Gu because it was uncertain which country she would associate with most when she was older.
But besides her own hard work, perhaps its best to say that Gu owes much of her success to being able to pick between the best resources from both countries. According to Beijing News, in the winters she often trained in the US but then flew back to China every summer to attend mathematics classes, benefiting from local excellence in the subject. “When I’m in China, I’m Chinese and when I go to America, I’m American,” Gu has also explained previously.
Notably during the Closing Ceremony on Sunday, state sports broadcaster CCTV 5 followed the movements of Gu more closely than any other athlete as she mingled with the rest of the Chinese team and waved.
And of course, all of the nuance about her identity hasn’t got in the way of a raft of corporate sponsors paying big bucks to associate with her success. Already the face of global brands such as Estee Lauder and Tiffany in China, it was hard to miss her during a single CCTV 5 commercial break during its coverage of the Beijing Games. She was front and centre as an endorser in the frequently aired ads of China Mobile, Bank of China and Xiaohongshu (known as Little Red Book in English). According to CBN, a Chinese newspaper, Gu has already signed contracts with at least 23 companies since the Games, reportedly earning as much as $2.5 million for each deal.
Step forward the golden boy
The commercial pickings could be almost as rich for Su Yiming, another of China’s new Olympic stars. “We have been turning down 100 endorsement deals a day,” the agent of the snowboarding prodigy boasted, after his client had bagged gold and silver medals at the Games.
Perhaps the agent was exaggerating a bit. Nevertheless, Su’s popularity is undeniable, with his weibo followers spiking to 1.5 million overnight from 100,000 (the number is still rising) after becoming China’s youngest Winter Olympic champion.
Su’s social media accounts have been carefully managed for some time, showing how hard he has been training in the snow. Shortly after he snowboarded into the nation’s attention, a video of him (said to have been filmed in 2015) began to go viral, showing a young Su vowing to represent China after Beijing was picked as the host city for the 2022 Games.
Born in the northeastern province of Jilin to a middle-class family, Su has been a winter sports lover since he was very young. He could easily become a movie star in the years ahead. When producers were looking to cast a child actor who could snowboard for the 2014 patriotic flick The Taking of Tiger Mountain, an eight year-old Su was soon selected. He received plaudits for his role in the movie and had further appearances in a few more. But he then opted to hold back on his budding acting career so he could focus on training for the Winter Olympics instead.
That decision turned out to be an excellent one. Elite athletes in China have been replacing movie stars and pop singers as the preferred choice for advertisers these days because of the Chinese government’s continuing crackdown on malpractice (such as tax evasion) and other scandalous misbehaviour in the entertainment sector.
Are sports stars going to take over from celebrities in the entertainment industry as endorsers?
Gu is said to be a good friend of Su. Perhaps the pair can fill the void left by the retirement of Yao Ming, a basketball player who served as one of the few truly global stars that China has ever produced in mainstream sport.
Other sports stars were created at this Games (where China won a record haul of nine gold medals). Another prominent example: skating couple Sui Wenjing and Han Cong. Four years after missing out on gold by a thin margin in Pyeongchang, the duo dramatically won the pairs figure skating in Beijing ahead of three heavily-fancied Russian couples. Apart from enjoying their performances, their legions of fans have also been fascinated by the nature of their relationship, with many trying to figure out if they are lovers and whether their marriage might be a possibility. (British readers might remember similar speculation about skating pair Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, who won gold in Sarajevo in 1984).
What’s interesting about Eileen Gu and Su Yiming is how different their personal style is to China’s traditional athletes. Su stands out from the crowd in other fields with his baggy trousers, shoulder-length hair and rings on his fingers, for instance.
Reacting to his scores at the slopestyle competition this month, where he won silver, he screamed a swear word in English – live on air – not something you would expect from the drilled graduates of China’s state sports academies.
Yet the sudden explosion in popularity of China’s new Olympians comes at a time when many of the stars in the showbiz world are opting for a lower profile after a slew of bad publicity. Some of the worst scandals were self-inflicted. Taiwanese singer Wang Leehom’s commercial deal with carmaker Infiniti lasted just two days, Global Times reported, after his wife went public with allegations that he had been unfaithful. In July last year Chinese-Canadian rapper Kris Wu lost dozens of lucrative contracts of his own after being caught up in damaging sexual assault allegations.
In situations like these, commercial brands have seen their marketing spend on image ambassadors like Wang and Wu rendered almost worthless overnight. It has even catalysed a new profession: investigative companies that perform integrity checks on celebrities or KOLs before advertisers decide to hire them.
Over the past year, the central government has taken aim at other behaviour that displeases it in the entertainment industry, including excessive pay packets for A-list stars as well as the fashion trends for the so-called liangpao, or ‘sissy boys’, look (see WiC424).
The healthy physiques and cleaner images sported by some of the country’s leading athletes offer up a different group of role models for tens of millions of young Chinese fans – and one apparently more in keeping with what the government wants to showcase to the younger generation.
Major domestic brands, especially internet firms, have spotted the trend too. Xiaomi, for instance, has already hired Su Bingtian as its new brand ambassador after the sprinter became the first Asian to break the 10-second barrier in the 100-metres sprint at the Tokyo Olympics last year. “There is not an internet firm who doesn’t want to go faster or break through boundaries,” Tencent Finance noted. “Top athletes are more fitting ambassadors [than movie celebrities] for internet firms.”
Has a sports agency been the big winner at the Beijing Olympics?
In spite of the the undoubted success of Gu and Su this month, Chinese internet users have been asking a question: are two teenagers – who excel in a sport that is far from the mainstream – still going to be able to generate enormous amounts of fan traffic down the line?
They will soon have their answer as the ‘golden boy and jade girl’ are clients of Endeavor China, a unit set up in 2016 – a year after Beijing was confirmed as the host city of the 2022 Winter games – to serve as a country-specific version of its American parent Endeavor (a part of which is McCormack’s IMG).
Although Gu’s agreement with Endeavor China ended early last year, Tencent Finance reported that the talent agency still had at least 15 Chinese clients competing in Beijing this month. The sponsorship agency’s other long-term clients in China include female boxer Zhang Weili, the first Chinese champion in UFC history, as well as retired tennis star Li Na (Endeavor China’s relationship with the former French Open tennis champion has been a well-documented one).
Endeavor China isn’t just a division of a multinational firm. It was set up as a joint venture with an investment group that included powerful private equity firm Sequoia China and tech behemoth Tencent. Neil Shen, the boss of Sequoia China, is also a director, Tencent Finance reported.
Sequoia China and Tencent have been two of the most influential investors in Chinese unicorns. With the help of its powerful private equity backers, Endeavor China has proven to be an astute investor in emerging sporting talents as well (in a fashion that’s not so dissimilar from how corporate unicorns have been identified and nurtured by the likes of Sequoia).
Details on Endeavor China’s cut on the endorsement deals of its clients aren’t publicly available but the Beijing Olympics this month has been a triumphant moment for the agency. Word of mouth must be spreading among sportspeople on how it has helped to shape the careers of the likes of Su and Gu (thanks to its shareholder, Endeavor’s clients have likely benefited from massive exposure across the Tencent WeChat ecosystem). Perhaps a few more of China’s beleaguered entertainment stars might take more notice too…
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