Olympic athletes live the lives of one of the most noted quotes of all time: “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” It happens once every four years – the world pays attention to runners, swimmers, jumpers, fencers, badminton players – the athletes who compete in the Summer Olympics. Once a generation, an athlete accomplishes what Michael Phelps managed to get done in Beijing. Phelps’ 15 minutes of fame will stretch for many years but for Olympians like Liu Xiang, sadly, it’s what have you done for me lately?
For many Chinese, Liu Xiang became the face of the Beijing Olympics. More than Yao Ming, more than the Chinese gymnists, more than the Chinese gold medal winning weight lifters. More than any other athlete in Beijing, Liu Xiang meant the world to the Chinese people and to the sports industries biggest sponsor Nike. All one has to do is to look back at Liu Xiang’s story to appreciate what could have been but now will never be – and how that will impact Nike.
Liu Xiang; born July 13, 1983 in Shanghai, China, is a Chinese 110 meter hurdler. Liu won Olympic gold at the 2004 Athens Games and won the 110m hurdles at the 2007 World Champion. His 2004 Olympic gold medal was China's first in the men's track and field event. He is the first Chinese athlete to achieve the "triple crown" of athletics (World Record Holder, World Champion and Olympic Champion). When the Beijing Games track completion began Friday Xiang was one of the few gold medalists the Chinese believed their athletes would win during the Games weeklong track and field events.
In May 2004 at an IAAF race in Osaka, Japan, Liu managed to beat American Allen Johnson with an Asian and personal best record time of 13.06 seconds. Liu had become his hero's (Johnson’s) rival just before the Athens Olympic Games.
Liu won the gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens in the 110 metre hurdles event, equaling Colin Jackson's 1993 world record of 12.91 seconds. This was also the first time an athlete of non-African descent had gone under 13 seconds for the 110 metre hurdles.
Liu also became the sixth man to post a time under 13 seconds for this event. The ecstatic Liu at once fulfilled the great promise he had shown in setting a world junior record two years earlier and raised the hopes of his compatriots for a repeat victory at the 2008 Games in Beijing. Liu said that his performance, which brought China its first men's Olympic gold medal in track and field, "changes the opinion that Asian countries don't get good results in sprint races. I want to prove to all the world that Asians can run very fast."
In his comments, Liu gave voice to his country's cultural stereotype, which judging from editorial comments in Chinese newspapers; he was not alone in believing. "I am a Chinese," he said, "and considering the physiology of the Chinese people, it is something unbelievable."
Liu, a 21-year-old student at East China Normal University at the time of his Athens victory, became the object of a bidding war between commercial sponsors. The Chinese Track and Field Association restricted him to four such deals. It’s a pretty good bet that in the years leading up to the Beijing Games Liu was the hottest and most marketable athlete scheduled to compete in Beijing. He may have been scheduled to compete in only one event but that one event represented a great deal to China’s 1.3 billion people.
To suggest Liu faced more pressure and scrutiny than any other athlete competing in the Beijing Games wouldn’t be an understatement. His event was one of the most anticipated in China, and indeed, his showdown with Cuban Dayron Robles was the event during the Beijing Olympics.
And then fate dealt a cruel blow to 1.4 billion people. In the biggest upset of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games for host country China, Xiang stumbled at the start of his qualifying heat in round one of the Men's 110m Hurdles on Monday morning. He later withdrew entirely from the event.
After Marcel van der Westen of the Netherlands in lane five made a false start, Liu then slipped off the blocks himself. When the athletes gathered at the start to get set a second time, Liu was conspicuously absent.
"A 110m Hurdles race without Liu is such a pity," Al-Thawadi said after the race. "I really wanted to be just next to Liu's lane because he's such a big champion. It's a great pity I lost an occasion to race with him. I hope he will come back soon."
At a press conference following the event, Liu's coach confirmed that the star's withdrawal was as a result of an injury to his right take-off foot, which has been affecting him for about six years. Liu reported on his own website Sunday that he was suffering from a sore Achilles tendon.
Liu's showdown with Dayron Robles, the Cuban who took away his world record earlier this summer, was one of the most eagerly-anticipated events of the Games.
Feng Shuyong, head coach of the Chinese Athletics team, said that he was very upset about Liu Xiang's withdrawal from the Olympic Men's 110m Hurdles on Monday morning.
The hurdler did not show up in the press conference after the race.
"After the Athens Olympics, the only target of Liu was to defend his title. He has worked very hard for achieving this goal," said Feng.
Feng remarked that Liu's injury "was old but controlled very well. That's the reason why Liu performed very well in competitions in the past years."
According to the coach, the injury to Liu's foot flared up last Saturday during training. "He was still confident of sprinting," said Feng.
In remarks to the press, Feng commended the star athlete, "He has strong mentality and has never given up in any case."
"Liu was very, very upset about the result. Liu said he would never give up as long as he can run," said Feng.
Nike one of Liu’s four key corporate partners told CNBC’s Darren Rovell (Rovell is in Beijing covering the Games for NBC) they would continue their plans to promote their association with the injured hurdler.
And as Rovell pointed out “This is the type of thing that makes Nike a leader in sports marketing. When the other sponsors privately cringe at the thought of one of their top guys going down, the folks at the Swoosh actually think, "How do we spend on this and turn it into a great human moment that appeals to people?"
The print ad, which will appear in The China Daily and a few local papers here in Beijing, will have Liu Xiang's face and will contain the following copy (in Mandarin):
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.
Just Do It.
Nike company spokesman, Derek Kent asked whether Liu's advertising value had declined, Kent said, "He's an icon here in China. He has a very bright future."
There are those however who believe Nike is making the best of what has become a lost leader for the sports shoe and apparel giant.
"If anybody takes a hit from it, it's certainly Nike, simply because they're all about performance, whereas the others are about brand image," Chris Renner said. "Nike's all about, you don't win silver, you lose gold. With that attitude, it's much tougher for them, because he was certainly the cornerstone for their program."
Tom Doctoroff, the North Asia chief executive of WPP Group's JWT ad agency, told The Wall Street Journal. Liu's withdrawal is a "big problem" for the brands that invested in him.
"Liu Xiang is an icon, and that icon did not come through," said Mr. Doctoroff, whose agency has made ads featuring Mr. Liu for Yili, the milk brand. "For one man to carry the burden of a nation, from a brand perspective, was never a smart thing to do."
Sponsoring an individual athlete is "like you are highly leveraged on one stock," said Marcus John, the managing director for sports-marketing company IMG Consulting in Asia.
Coca-Cola, Visa and China Mobile are Liu’s other major sponsors. According to an Associated Press report Liu's endorsements have made him one of China's richest athletes, bringing in 163 million yuan (US$23.8 million) last year, according to Forbes magazine. He ranked No. 2 on its list of China's most powerful celebrities, behind basketball star Yao Ming.
Remember Michael Phelps’ nine sponsors paid the Baltimore native an estimated $5 million last year – and Phelps won six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games and no one was that surprised after Phelps won eight gold medals during the first week of the Beijing Games.
"His marketing value has been seriously diminished," said Chris Renner, president for China of sports marketing agency Helios Partners in an Associated Press report.
"If anybody takes a hit from it, it's certainly Nike, simply because they're all about performance, whereas the others are about brand image," he said. "Nike's all about, you don't win silver, you lose gold. With that attitude, it's much tougher for them, because he was certainly the cornerstone for their program."
Michael Phelps is leaving Beijing as the face of the Games as the most marketable athlete leaving the Games. Heading into the Games Liu represented that and a great deal more to Nike and his sponsors. Liu was a Chinese athlete, representing China, competing at the first Olympic Games being held in China who beat the Americans and the world at their own game(s).
“Liu Xiang represents the dreams of all the Chinese,” said Terry Rhoads, managing director at Zou Marketing, a Beijing sports marketing consultancy in a New York Times report. “He’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime athletes.”
“We started supporting him in 2003 and we’ll continue to support him. This won’t change anything,” said Kenth Kaerhoeg, a spokesman for Coca-Cola.
Visa issued a similar statement late Monday, saying: “This is extraordinarily disappointing for Liu Xiang. We have great sympathy for him and wish him a speedy recovery. Nothing will ever take away his performance in Athens. He will always remain a great Chinese icon and a friend of Visa.”
Be honest what else would anyone expect Nike, Coca-Cola and Visa to say in the hours after the world’s most populated country dealt with the pain and suffering of Liu Xiang.
“Liu Xiang’s dropping out aroused wide sympathy; it was quite moving,” says Zheng Suhui, who works at the brand institute at the Communication University of China in Beijing in a New York Times report. “I think the public will understand him and respect him. So in this sense, his sponsors won’t stop his advertisement campaigns. Nike, Coca-Cola, these big brands must be smart enough to hold him for at least several months because Liu Xiang’s commercial value is still there. He is presenting the image of the great hero, who sacrifices himself for the nation.”
Again what Suhui is saying makes perfect sense but at the end of the day is it reasonable to expect Nike, Coca-Cola and Visa to continue investing tens of millions of dollars in an athlete who due to an injury didn’t deliver in Beijing?
It may have been the prudent decision the three companies made Monday but in the months and years to come watch for that money to find its way to Michael Phelps.
For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: CNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press