By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 28, 2008
BEIJING -- As China embraces capitalism, its athletic teams are cashing in.
The national men's field hockey squad, for one, has been eager to collect. Twenty years ago, before the rise of China's market economy, the team didn't stand to win prize money or sponsorships. Competitions were for the glory of the country, not the kind of fame lavished on athletes in the West.
Today, with the Olympic Games in Beijing less than four months away, the team is sponsored by Nike. It has an expert coach from South Korea, expensive protective equipment made by a U.S. firm and access to a professional psychologist through the state sports administration.
"Commercialization of sports is unavoidable," said Zhu Zhenhui, a former provincial league soccer player and now a doctor for the field hockey team.
Attitudes about sports in China have undergone a dramatic shift from the days when the government focused on collective gain rather than individual accomplishment. Those changes have helped foster the development of a new kind of athlete, one whose sacrifices result in fame and fortune -- and, if the athlete has a distinct personality, national celebrity.
Corporate sponsors, enticed by the huge market potential in a country of 1.3 billion people, have been quick to see opportunity.
The shift spans the panorama of Chinese sport. Tennis players who once barely eked out a living can now earn as much as $100,000 a year. Even the lowliest college team is part of a tiered economic system of sponsorships, incentives and bonuses. In Beijing, the University of Aeronautics and Astronautics track team is sponsored by a tire company. One distance runner said he stands to receive a bonus of more than $14,000 if he wins at the national level.
Such amounts might seem paltry by U.S. standards -- American swimmer Michael Phelps will receive $1 million from Speedo if he wins seven gold medals this summer -- but they're not trivial here.
"It's good for athletes to become stars. Society progresses," said Sun Jinfang, a well-known volleyball player in the 1980s who heads the National Tennis Administrative Center. "In my time, people called for you to sacrifice unselfishly. It's impossible to have the same idea nowadays."
The shift to individual achievement -- and acclaim -- has also had a downside, particularly in a country hypersensitive about its image. Some athletes are being seen as downright spoiled.
Guo Jingjing, a star diver who will compete at the Games in August, promotes sportswear, snack food and soft drinks, and is sponsored by McDonald's and Budweiser. She's hounded by the Chinese entertainment media wherever she goes.
This year, Guo broke the tedium of a news conference by ignoring reporters and working on a handicraft project, tying Chinese knots out of silken cord. She referred to a competitor as a "fat Canadian." Her perceived rudeness triggered an Internet fury among sports fans and journalists.
There are well-behaved athletes, of course. Yao Ming, star center of the Houston Rockets professional basketball team, and Liu Xiang, a rock-star hurdler, for example, have captured the imaginations of the Chinese. But the kind of fame they enjoy would have been impossible previously.
"Before, our policy killed the personalities of athletes. The government didn't promote fame or self-interest," said Jin Shan, director of the Sports Culture Research Center at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences.
"China was so weak in its economy and politics that sports were used to enhance the people's confidence," Jin added. "Now it's not necessary to use sports to build a strong image of China overseas. Sports will be commercialized in the future, and more stars will be generated, just like in the U.S."
Today's athletes, many born after the 1980s, cite a variety of motivations for pursuing sports, from academic incentives from the government to being able to travel abroad and see the world. But for many, it's largely about the money.
At Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Xu Xiulin, 22, races with the Shanxi Provincial Track and Field Group, attending classes morning and night and practicing in the afternoon. If he wins at the Chinese National Games championship, the team will give him a bonus of more than $14,000.
"I want to get what I deserve by my hard work," he said. "Athletes should be paid well because the training is so tough."
Not all athletes can do as well as Xu. As in the United States, salaries correspond to the popularity of a sport. Badminton and table tennis players, for example, attract more sponsors than do wrestlers, who can't fill stands with spectators. Sponsors didn't chase after China's tennis team until two female stars brought home gold medals from the Athens Olympics in 2004 and became instant national heroes.
Twenty years ago, athletes' salaries came from the government. Today, most teams are still paid by the government, though the state soccer team is owned by private sponsors. But officials now dole out bonuses and other incentives for performance.
Low salaries previously prompted many athletes, including Yao Ming, to move abroad. In 1994, female table tennis player He Zhili moved to Japan. When she later beat China's reigning champion, Deng Yaping, there was a national uproar.
"It's necessary to offer financial prizes to athletes -- otherwise we can't make them keep working for us," said Shi Chunyuan, head of the Sports Administration office in Liaoning province.
Liu, the hurdler, has perhaps been the greatest beneficiary of the new approach. He has enjoyed the adoration of Chinese fans since setting a world record at the Athens Games. Now he's sponsored by Nike, Coca-Cola, Visa and a slew of Chinese brands, including a real estate company and a cigarette-maker.
Sponsorships have become such a focus for Liu and other top Olympic contenders that sports authorities in China have started to worry that the athletes will be distracted from their training. Late last year, authorities instructed elite competitors to cut back on their commercial activities.
At the time, Liu's father and spokesman, Liu Xuegen, told the South China Morning Post that he didn't think the instructions would make much of a difference.
"I'm afraid those really well-connected organizations and persons seeking his appearance will still have their way if they press hard enough," he said. "It's something inevitable in China."
Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington and researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.