Global Economics

China Olympic Hero Liu Xiang Quits Games


It's a huge heartbreak for Chinese fans and corporate sponsors, but marketers for the likes of Coke and Lenovo know it's risky to back single athletes

It was meant to be the crowning event of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. The Bird's Nest Stadium erupted in wild cheering when hometown hurdler Liu Xiang stepped onto the field. But the jubilation gave way to shock, disbelief, and heartbreak when, after an initial false start caused by another runner, Liu walked away from the field, unable to compete because of an injured Achilles tendon.

No other Chinese athlete felt more pressure coming into the games than Liu. Since winning the 110 hurdles in Athens in 2004, Liu become an overnight hero to Chinese fans and a darling of marketers, including Nike (NKE), Coca-Cola (KO), Visa (V), and McDonald's (MCD), not to mention more than a dozen Chinese brands (BusinessWeek.com, 8/8/07) ranging from tobacco company Baisha to Spring of Sudi, a real estate company. Last year, Liu's tie-ins with corporate sponsors, which also included General Motors (GM), earned him an estimated $15 million, placing him second in earnings only to Houston Rockets center Yao Ming among Chinese sports stars.

Now, as Chinese fans cope with their collective despair over Liu's tragic withdrawal from the Games, his sponsors (BusinessWeek.com, 7/31/08) are doing their best to put on a brave face. "We are still proud and honored to have him as a brand ambassador," says Keith Kaerhoeg, group communications director of Coca-Cola Pacific. "We will certainly continue our engagement with Liu Xiang and wish him a full and early recovery." Coke began working with Liu in 2003 before his Olympic win.

Will Sponsors Stand By Him?

Still, you can bet Coke is praying Liu will be back in competition soon. Coke's partnership with Liu Xiang has been one of China's most successful Olympic-related campaigns. According to data collected in May by market research firm Nielsen, 62% of those asked were able to recall a Coke ad in which he was featured. Despite his injury, he is still scheduled to make an appearance at Coke's pavilion on the Olympic green later this week.

How many of those lucrative sponsorship deals will continue after the Olympics is over remains to be seen. Hurdlers are among the most injury-prone athletes, and Liu had been plagued by difficulties since May. His teary-eyed coach, Feng Shuyong, told a press conference where Liu was not in attendance that "if his injury weren't so serious, he would never have quit," according to the official Chinese news agency Xinhua. That statement does not augur well at all for Liu's future in competition. He will be 30 for the next Olympics.

Of course, sponsoring individuals is always more chancy than backing entire teams or events. "From a marketing perspective, association with athletes carries special risks, from notoriety to injury," says Seth Grossman, communication planning director at Aegis Group subsidiary Carat China in Shanghai. "The future for Liu Xiang and those brands is anybody's guess, but this isn't the time where major brand decisions are made."

Not All Sponsorships in One Basket

PC maker Lenovo says it's impossible to speculate on how Liu will reckon in its marketing plans going forward. As company spokesman Bob Page in Beijing points out, Liu Xiang was one of 15 athletes working with Lenovo; others include U.S. women's beach volleyball duo Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, and Australian women's swimming 50-meter freestyle world record-holder Libby Trickett. So while Liu's withdrawal from the games comes as a disappointment, the company didn't have everything riding on him alone. "These things happen," says Page, "Some athletes do extremely well and some don't, that's part of competing in the Olympic Games."

With Liu out of the competition, Cuban sensation Dayron Robles looks like a shoo-in for the 110 men's hurdles gold medal. If that's the case, you can be sure corporate sponsors will be beating down his door to sign deals.

Balfour is Asia Correspondent for BusinessWeek based in Hong Kong.

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